Last week’s Sunday Steeple Chase and Tuesday Temple Tour were combined to form a two-part series about a San Francisco architectural landmark. As revealed earlier this week in Sunday Steeple Chase 6, only one reader correctly named the “mystery organization” profiled. Congratulations to Nancy Ewart for identifying this organization as the Mormon Temple in Oakland. The full name for the organization is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Oakland California Temple.
Instructions for responding to this week’s Temple Tour challenge are shown at the bottom of this column. Remember, the “mystery temple” featured each week might be an actual temple, or it might be a monastery, synagogue or similar spiritual or educational institution commonly thought of as a temple.
This week’s “mystery temple” has a special relationship with the tuna sandwich – more specifically, two tuna sandwiches. This humblest of meals gave sustenance to one of this week’s mystery temple founding members and his advisor from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).
Having grown away from his orthodox/conservative upbringing, this founding individual (Dr. Marc Usatin) was eventually able to find solace and support at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco where he worshipped regularly. Unfortunately, when he and his wife relocated to Walnut Creek, they both felt unable to connect in a similar way with the synagogues around them that were in existence at that time. (Actually, as you read on, you’ll likely agree that this may have not been so very unfortunate after all.)
Dr. Usatin and his wife, troubled over their inability to find a congregation that was as warm and welcoming as the one they were leaving, felt lost and turned to an Assistant Rabbi at their former synagogue for advice. The advice they received from Rabbi Avi Magid was, at once, both simple and daunting: Start your own synagogue – one that will meet not only your needs but the needs of others in your community who are seeking a similar environment in which to worship.
A little more than 30 years ago, Rabbi Magid put this soon-to-be-a-synagogue-founder in touch with Rabbi Maury Hirschman, the Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. As a result, Dr. Usatin and Rabbi Hirschman, while dining on tuna sandwiches at Walnut Creek’s Emil Villa, put their heads together and fleshed out the early planning details of what would be come a permanent center of spirituality for East Bay residents.
Nicknamed “B’nai Kaiser” because of its proximity to Kaiser Permanente’s Walnut Creek hospital complex (and because so many of the early congregants of this “mystery temple” were physicians, nurses, and even patients from Kaiser), the synagogue’s true name (which will be revealed next week) translates as the inspirational phrase, People of Hope.
As part of this early planning phase, a part-time Rabbi was hired for the amazingly small sum of $1,000 with the understanding that he would guide the fledgling congregation through the High Holidays of September 1981. That part-time Rabbi, Joseph Asher, has been with this synagogue since that time, and has become a familiar face to many in the East Bay. His name is lovingly inscribed on one of the bricks on the walkway in front of this “mystery temple” (and may be viewed by clicking on the slideshow link on the left hand side of this column).
The founding members of this congregation also launched a religious school, borrowing books initially from Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah to help them begin their programming.
Because music was also to be an integral part of this center of spirituality, planners reached out to San Francisco’s Conservatory of Music, where they recruited Aviva Katzman, a talented Jewish singer, to become the Cantorial Soloist. Katzman stayed with the congregation for two years before moving on to Cantorial School in New York.
More than 300 individuals attended this organization’s first Rosh Hashanah services, which were held at the Jewish Community Center in 1981.
The congregation, now located on Hillcroft Way in Walnut Creek, remains a small, but friendly one, describing itself on its web site as “a community for all people, young and old, single and married, Jews by chance and Jews by choice, the entire fabric of Kallal Yisroel.”
Rabbi Asher, known in the East Bay for his interfaith outreach efforts, has become respected both for his scholarship and for his guidance to area youth and vulnerable populations. Encouraging “the exploration of a variety of spiritual paths to Torah, whether through deeds of kindness, study, or prayer,” those in his charge have grown under his tutelage to become religious leaders, teachers, Cantors, and community leaders.
In addition to his membership on the Board of the Contra Costa Interfaith Council, Rabbi Asher chairs the Health and Faith-in-Action Committee, and serves on the Board of Danville’s Jewish Home. He has helped to improve the care of the elderly across the county, and has raised awareness of the need to ensure the delivery of care for the spirit and mind, as well as for the body in local healthcare facilities. He has also been a good friend to individuals with mental illness.
Rabbi Asher’s congregation refers to him as their “magnet of hope”; however, his is not the only star shining in this congregation. Cantor Emeritus Stephen Richards, a New York City native who had an early career as a composer-arranger in musical theater, served this organization from 1994-2000.
Cantor Richards earned his Bachelor’s degree in Music from New York University, his Master’s in Music Composition from Columbia University, and an Honorary Doctorate of Sacred Music from Hebrew Union College (among many other honors). His works have been recorded by symphonies worldwide.
This organization’s current musical leader, Cantor Jennie Chabon, is a native of Berkeley and former member of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in anthropology (comparative religions) from Columbia University and her Master’s of Sacred Music and Investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary before living and studying for two years in Israel.
If you think you’ve figured out the name of this week’s “mystery temple,” send in your hunch to the Bay Area Spirituality Examiner by following the instructions below.
Readers are invited to submit their guesses about the name of this week’s featured temple, along with any personal memories of the “mystery temple” via the comments section below the article. Readers may also submit their personal photos of the featured mystery temple to: [email protected] If suitable for publication, photos will be included in next week’s column with the answer to the Temple Tour question.
Next Week: The name of the sixth “mystery temple” and a new mystery temple profile.