In 2017, Julie Rubenstein walked into a community-wide meeting at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. Although she had been a member for only one year, she could see clearly that “the synagogue was in big trouble.” The entire eight-member board had resigned recently, the financial situation was bleak and membership was in steady decline.
“They needed to make some big changes very quickly if they were going to survive,” Rubenstein recalled.
Less than four years later, Beth Sholom has made a comeback. Through the diligence of a new set of synagogue leaders, membership is slowly growing again, finances have been diversified and new programs are being introduced.
Its recovery stands as an atypical success story, especially as synagogues around the country continue to merge. In November, two congregations in the southwestern part of San Francisco — Beth Israel Judea and B’nai Emunah — voted to join forces; one of the stated reasons was the promise of financial stability.
Beth Sholom was founded as San Leandro Hebrew Congregation in the late 1880s with a couple dozen members and a 1,000-square foot synagogue called the “Little Shul,” which still stands in its backyard and is sometimes used for Saturday services and special occasions.
As membership grew over the years, there was a need for more space, so in 1954, Beth Sholom built a large, modern shul on Dolores Avenue, a 15-minute walk from the downtown strip. A decade later, a sanctuary and offices were added. At one point, in the early 1990s, nearly 400 families were members.
“For High Holidays we’d have about 600 people,” said Linda Hirschhorn, who has served as Beth Sholom’s cantor since 1988. “The crowd would extend all the way in the sanctuary and then into the social hall and then up on the stage.”
But the big numbers wouldn’t last forever.
As the ’90s wore on, Hirschhorn said, a “real decline” occurred when many of the congregation’s families began moving to cities such as Livermore, Dublin or Danville in search of better school districts. At the same time, longtime members of the shul were getting older.
“We were losing members one funeral at a time,” said Heather Green, Beth Sholom’s president.
Until 2009, the temple was affiliated with the Conservative movement. It became unaffiliated that year after it couldn’t afford movement dues.
By the time Rubenstein walked into that meeting in 2017, membership had dwindled to around 75 families. After hearing how dire things were, Rubenstein, who at the time had a full-time job as an interior designer, said she was compelled to become the board president “mostly because nobody else wanted to do it.” (And even though she’s no longer president of the board, she remains very involved with the synagogue.)
Rubenstein’s first order of business was to see where she could trim expenses.
Some decisions were easy, like cutting back on the amount of printing or using a volunteer gardener.
Others were a lot harder.
Rabbi Harry Manhoff, who served at Beth Sholom since 1997, was asked to retire early in 2018. He now carries the title of rabbi emeritus and teaches adult education at the temple. Bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings are handled by the cantor. Rubenstein said the move made some congregants unhappy, but she maintains that the temple “would have run out of money” otherwise.
Rubenstein also brought in outside consulting help. Through a donation, she sought the advice of Rabbi David Wolfman, an East Coast-based organizational transition coach with expertise in congregations. During a year of consulting in 2018, he told Beth Sholom leadership that understanding different generations’ spending habits was going to be crucial in revitalizing the synagogue.
“We baby boomers are very loyal,” Wolfman explained. “We’ll join a synagogue even if it is mediocre.” But millennials are different, he said. “They’ll pay for excellence. They don’t take mediocrity.”
The point about millennials also was being pitched by Beth Zygielbaum, who joined Beth Sholom in 2015 and came on staff in 2019 as director of operations; she had experience in helping organizations make course corrections.
To entice millennial families, she and Rubenstein began eyeing the temple’s 40-year-old preschool, which five years ago was charging a sub-market rate of $900 per month and consisted of about 20 percent Jewish families.
Seeing an opportunity, synagogue leadership decided to change things up. Starting in January 2020, instead of advertising on Yelp, the synagogue switched to using social media platforms with family-focused Jewish groups. They also raised the price from $900 a month to between $1,250 and $1,350 a month, with some need-based scholarships available and hired Malka Stover-Kemp, the temple’s youth education director.
Those decisions have paid off.
From its low point in 2017, membership at the synagogue has increased by a little more than 20 percent, to 100 families, and about half the 36 preschool kids are from Jewish families, more of whom are involved with the synagogue in other ways.
The increased revenue has helped diversify the synagogue’s finances away from a simple membership dues model, Zygielbaum said.
Currently, the preschool’s headcount is limited by pandemic restrictions. Zygielbaum said there is a waitlist and that the school could accommodate as many as 49 children once restrictions are lifted.
“I think the preschool, as an introduction to the synagogue, is a great way to get involved,” said Michael Moreau, whose two children are enrolled.
Moreau, who recently became a board member, said he and his family chose to move to San Leandro in 2016 because of the lower housing prices versus Oakland, a story many other “new” San Leandro residents have shared with him.
The influx of working families with millennial parents to San Leandro is something that Zygielbaum and Rubenstein have observed in and around the temple’s predominantly residential neighborhood — providing another opportunity for Beth Sholom’s growth.
This year, the board and other temple leaders debated the synagogue’s Sunday school, which had been in an attendance decline for years.
Zygielbaum, Rubenstein and Green reckoned that Sundays had emerged as a day for soccer games and family outings, and were no longer a convenient day to send one’s kids to religious school.
Rather, they felt that families with two working parents could better benefit more from an afterschool program, so in August (with the help of a generous donor), the temple launched a fee-based afterschool program that now has 12 children and is ready to expand based on demand, Zygielbaum said.
“We really believe this is gonna turn the tide for us,” Green said.
After the pandemic ends, the plan is to replace the Sunday school with a Sunday family workshop series, said Stover-Kemp, the temple’s youth education director.
While the changes have caused some friction within the congregation, according to Green, other longtime members say they’re trying to embrace the temple’s new face.
Take Eleanor Tandowsky, for example, who says the drive is “worth it” even though she lives 17 miles from the synagogue. She has been a member of Beth Sholom since 1964, her late husband, Richard, was temple president in the 1970s, and her children and grandchildren had their b’nai mitzvahs there.
“Temple Beth Sholom is a very special congregation,” said Tandowsky, currently the shul’s archivist and librarian. As for the changes, she said, “That’s the way life is. You have to go with the times. You have to learn to go with the changes.”
Wolfman, the consultant, said that this tension — a synagogue having to adapt to the times and sometimes discard former models or practices — is the “heart” of his work. The key to doing it successfully, he said, is to make the transition comfortable for long-time congregants.
“You have to sit with the person and say, ‘What do you miss?’” he said. “You can’t say, ‘Get with the plan for God’s sake!’”
Wolfman said Beth Sholom managed to make changes by not implementing anything too quickly, and by not doing things simply “for the sake of change.”
“They allowed for the transition to happen,” he said. “It took years, it took tears. It took pain.”
Rita Goldhor, one of the oldest members of the synagogue at 93, joined in 1950 when the temple was just the “Little Shul.” Born in Austria and a survivor of the Holocaust through the Kindertransport, Goldhor lives half a mile from Beth Sholom.
“How do I feel about change?” Goldhor said. “You can’t stop it from coming. It’s shrinking, in terms of us, the older folks” as a percentage of total members.
Despite that, Goldhor is confident in the temple’s longevity.
“Temple Beth Sholom is not going away.”