Rabbi Annette Koch still hasn’t had time to unpack the moving boxes in her office at Alameda’s Temple Israel.
She arrived in the Bay Area this summer and immediately started planning for the High Holidays. Now that she’s led the congregation through those services, she faces another daunting task — taking over as spiritual leader of a synagogue rebounding from severe financial problems.
Temple Israel was unable to renew the contracts of Rabbi Barnett Brickner and Cantor Brian Reich last year as its membership declined by a third, to about 100 families.
But the synagogue, which celebrates its centennial in 2020, has been able to stabilize its finances since then and hired Koch as its part-time rabbi after having Rabbi Steven Chester, emeritus rabbi from Oakland’s Temple Sinai, fill in on an interim basis for a year.
“We’re doing much better,” said Betty Riback, who took over as president of the synagogue in July. “I think we’re going to start growing again.”
Koch is no stranger to small congregations facing financial challenges. After being ordained in 2006, she worked for three years at a suburban Portland congregation in Lake Oswego, Oregon, but financial challenges forced her out. Then came a stint at a synagogue in the Philadelphia suburbs, until that temple was forced to merge with another synagogue.
She has been focusing since then on her work as a chaplain at a hospital and a hospice, work she hopes to continue in the Bay Area.
Koch entered rabbinical school after 18 years as an attorney in New York, specializing in asset-based finance and international commercial finance. Even with her long hours of legal work, she found herself becoming more and more involved with a small congregation in suburban New York.
At dinner one night, a rabbinical intern from the temple suggested she become a rabbi. After initially dismissing the idea, she came to realize that was the right move.
“There was no epiphany, there was no single moment when I made that decision,” Koch said. “I wanted my son to understand that [belonging to a congregation] wasn’t about dropping him off at religious school so he could be Jewish, it was about being Jewish as a family. That nurtured something in my spirit that blossomed.”
She credits her move to the Bay Area in part to the fact that her son and his family, including her two granddaughters, live here. Though she knew Temple Israel could only hire her part time and can’t yet afford a cantor, Koch said she was impressed by the congregation’s decision to face reality and understand it could not take on full-time clergy at this point.
Besides, she said, she loves to sing and so do her congregants — so the lack of a cantor is not a big problem. And Reich has remained at the synagogue, as education director.
“I’m not worried about what we don’t have,” Koch said. “I’m thrilled with what we do have.”
The congregation had about 150 families in 2016 but had fallen to about 120 families when the decision was made in December 2016 not to renew the contracts of clergy Bricker and Reich at the end of June 2017. By that time, the synagogue had about 100 families as members.
Riback said the congregation has held steady at that number, and she has heard from several families that they intend to rejoin Temple Israel now that Koch is in place.
“I’ve had people come up to me in the last two weeks saying we’re joining again, we’re glad to be back. Some came for Rosh Hashanah as guests and said that we’re coming back,” Riback said. “We don’t need to reach for really high numbers; we need to reach for dedicated congregants.”
The long-term viability of Temple Israel is no longer in doubt, she said.
“In 2020, we are celebrating our hundredth anniversary. We are building up to that,” she said. “I have no doubt that when my grandson (now 6) is ready to be bar mitzvahed, it will be here.”