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The First Congregants

Incorporated in 1930, Congregation Beth Jacob was the first Jewish religious institution created between the cities of San Francisco and San Jose. The handful of men who founded our synagogue was almost exclusively Polish and Russian immigrants, including three chicken farmers and a cabinetmaker, among the more than 2 million Jews who had fled Eastern Europe between 1882 and 1910 in search of a brighter future on the far side of the world.

At the time Beth Jacob was first organized, around 1927, the only Jews in Palo Alto were the Levins. Other Jewish families soon moved into the surrounding area and soon there were enough men to be able to conduct services. The first service was held in the living room of the Enten family, the men standing and the women seated at the dining room table. There were 25 members of the new congregation, with services rotating among members’ homes and the Torah shuttled from house to house by car.

Our First Home

In 1931 the fledgling congregation purchased a lot on Creek Drive in Menlo Park, just over the county line from Stanford University and half a block west of El Camino Real. Two years later, the first services were held in the 100-seat sanctuary of the new synagogue, a classic Palo Alto Spanish Revival-style building.

The man who would lead Beth Jacob into the modern world from its Orthodox beginnings was Kenneth Carlton Zwerin, a young San Francisco attorney and social activist. For the next decade, he served as the congregation’s rabbi, although it is unclear whether he was actually ordained. Under Zwerin’s guidance, services included prayer books in both Hebrew and English.

After the War

In the wake of World War II, as the Peninsula experienced an unprecedented boom in population, many within Beth Jacob’s leadership recognized that the congregation would eventually outgrow its current home. So in 1951, the congregation purchased 3.5 acres in the soon-to-be-built neighborhood development on Alameda de las Pulgas, our current location, and broke ground on the new synagogue a year later. Beth Jacob sold the Creek Drive facility to the United Pentecostal Church which used the building until its demolition in 1988.

After Zwerin’s tenure leading Beth Jacob, numerous rabbis and lay leaders filled the rabbinical position at Beth Jacob for almost two decades. In 1957, Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum arrived; under his direction, Beth Jacob joined the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an affiliation that continued until 2013. In 1964, Hans Cohn became Beth Jacob’s cantor. Cantor Cohn had fled from a childhood in Nazi Germany to China, finally reaching the United States via Australia.

Our Darkest Hour

In the winter of 1979, the Redwood City Fire Department received a call from Beth Jacob’s neighbors that the building was burning. Within hours, the sanctuary was destroyed, as were the social hall and the offices. Arson was suspected, but no conclusive evidence was ever found.

Neighboring churches, particularly the nearby First Congregational Church, immediately offered financial and practical support, and Beth Jacob’s congregational life was able to continue with barely a pause. Our positive relationship with the First Congregational Church continues to this day. Numerous local civic and retail organizations assisted with fundraising and other much-needed support. Determined members of Beth Jacob undertook our own fundraising campaign, and in 1981 the new synagogue, our current facility, was dedicated.

Tolerance and Progressiveness

Since joining the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1957, Beth Jacob has unwaveringly held its place on the progressive leading edge of the Conservative movement. By the late 1950s at Beth Jacob, women were a significant presence on the bimah and girls were studying to become B'not Mitzvah. This was not the norm in Conservative congregations at the time. Rabbi Teitelbaum began a Bar Mitzvah class for adult men, an initiative that garnered national attention in the Jewish press. In 1965, Teitelbaum flew to Selma, AL with several other Bay Area rabbis to join the Selma to Montgomery marches, a direct precursor to the Voting Rights Act. In 2000, Rabbi Ezray offered blessings on the bimah to a gay couple just prior to their commitment ceremony, which he co-officiated with a local Reform rabbi at her synagogue. Since 2001, Beth Jacob’s congregation has hosted homeless families as part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

A New Era

Starting in 1995, Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray continued the helm of leadership. In 2002 Bill Futornick took the post of ritual director, a role in which he works with Rabbi Ezray to lead services, text study, and other liturgical functions. In addition, Bill seems to know every single child at Beth Jacob, as he has trained them all for their B’nai Mitzvah over the years. Cantor Barbara Powell joined the clergy team in 2007 to lead services and teach classes and trope to students of all ages. Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon came to us in 2015 as our Religious School Director. In 2008, Beth Jacob changed its name from Temple Beth Jacob, as it had become known over the past several decades, back to the original name Congregation Beth Jacob, to reflect our emphasis on the people.

To learn more about the history of Beth Jacob through the memories of longtime congregants, please enjoy our Oral History video archive here.

Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyyar 5784