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The History of Temple Isaiah

Caption: Shabbat Service honoring our founders and their families Friday, June 2, 2017 (Photo by Alan Jacobson)

Adapted from materials written by Bernice Scharlach

“A Miracle is as true as the faith of those, who believe in it.”

The year was 1951, and the best-known thing beyond the Caldecott Tunnel was a swinging night club area known as the Tunnel Strip.  One war was over (WWII) and another one, the Korean Conflict, just beginning.  Soldiers from the first one were settling down to raising families.  Some of the Jewish men from all parts of the country who discovered California during their service days, came back to settle here with their brides.  Brides became mothers, and they were thinking ahead.  “Where are our kids going to meet other Jewish kids?  We’re not religious, but…but what about Sunday School for them?”

All of which led to the first chapter in the history of Temple Isaiah – “The Partitions Story.”  Every chronicle of our Temple’s beginnings mentions the first women’s tea, held under the auspices of the Jewish Welfare Federation in 1951, when an attempt was made to round up the other Jewish families in the area via the phone book.  And who knows how may uncircumcised Schwartzs, Kaufmanns Wavises, Sterns, Steins and other “could be” names were erroneously alerted?  But from that tea, sufficient names were gathered to organize the League of Jewish Women.

The League’s first organized effort began in October 1951, with the conversion of the Lafayette Town Hall into a Jewish Sunday School for two hours each Sunday morning – via partitions.  But it took more than the women to do it.  True the women came in each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. with brooms and dustpans and swept out the debris from whatever activity occurred there the night before.  But it took six brawny husbands to schlep in the folding partitions that sectioned off the room into two classes for the 40 students.  Two hours later they came back to take them down and store them away for another week.

Concurrently with the religious school classes (underwritten, by the way, with funds from the JWF), was an adult study group which met on Sunday nights to study, “Our Jewish Heritage.”  (“We don’t want the kids to know more than we do, do we?”)  High attendance was attributed equally to the fine lectures and the Jewish delicacies that were served.

The Religious Committee established Friday night services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek.  If the services bore any resemblance to our present Friday night observances, it was only because of the zeal of the lay members of the fledgling congregation who conducted them and the earnestness of the participants.  Someone remembered to put a collection plate on the Oneg table so that, when the time came to move, we could leave a present for the church.

The first Bar Mitzvah was held in that church.  The boy, fortified with several years’ study by his father, amazed even the Orthodox rabbi, a chaplain from the now defunct Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg.  The minister of the church and his wife were guests of honor.  Every woman in the group baked, and thereby started a Temple Isaiah baking tradition.  The men got into the act officially the night of January 15, 1952, when 47 families pledged a total of $7,700 to “something” going.  Despite the pessimist and the who-needs-it and isn’t what we have good enough, it was decided to draw up bylaws and look for a building site.

Shortly after the Episcopal Bar Mitzvah, the building committee, after a year and a half of fruitless searching, heard that one of the nightclubs on the Tunnel Strip was folding.  A few members quickly worked out the financing.  Ten courageous members co-signed the loan, and the nightclub and 14 acres were miraculously purchased for $53,000.

The road up from Mt. Diablo Boulevard was marked by a 20-foot tall Tiki god (trying to move that pagan idol later got us almost as much publicity as the flag-raising on Iwo Jima).  The “landscaping” consisted of a dried-up waterfall and a beat-up canoe.  Members got their first look at a preview party on Labor Day, 1953 and aptly named day.  What difference did it make if the walls were covered with grass mats ... if the lanais all around the central kitchen were thinly partitioned into dining rooms… if the lower floor was a food and ice storage room ... if the only piece of furniture left in the building was a block-long bar .. if the restrooms were marked “kanes” and “wahines”?  Anyone could see the possibilities.  And best of all, it was a place of our own, at last.  Sixty-seven people attended the box supper that night, and their feeling of pride was summed up by one member, who peering out at the parked cars smiled gleefully and expressed the feeling of the young do-it-yourselfers when he said, “Look, not a Cadillac in the lot!”

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from that time on, but who could predict that one of the stormiest issues would be the selection of such a peaceful man as a rabbi?  After another year-and-a half had passed, the members realized they could no longer depend on the generosity of the area rabbinate to help every time there was a special occasion.  A Rabbi Selection Committee was formed to search for the “Perfect Leader.”  How does a group of well-meaning but inexperienced people go about hiring a rabbi?  This one did it by drawing up a job specification sheet!

Unfortunately, they couldn’t even agree on what the job specifications should be!  “A strong leader is NOT what we want.  We don’t want to turn over the reins of the organization.  We worked too hard to build it!”  “Should we go Conservative or Reform?” “I don’t think we have to decide that ... it’s the MAN who is important.”

Then began the parade of candidates ending with the “final” selection of the first rabbi, Bernard Ducoff, Conservative, 1955 – 57, and the “final” selection of the second rabbi, Dr. H. Hirsch Cohen, Reform, 1957 – 59 and the introduction to such things as Temple Politics.  (An important step was taken when, in 1958, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations).  The third time around coincided happily with the ordination of “that fellow from Richmond, Dave Robbins” (1959 – 68), who had been a Jewish Center director before attending rabbinical school.  Fortunately, by now the members had four years’ experience in what a congregation should be like.  The two former rabbis had learned too.  When last heard from, neither had again accepted a congregational pulpit!

Rabbi Jerome Sherman served as rabbi from 1968 – 72.  In 1972, another Rabbi Selection Committee selected Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg and the Temple entered an era of stepped excitement, learning, creativity, and activity.  Dialogue was introduced into Friday night services; Saturday morning services were inaugurated; , a Family School was started on Wednesday evenings;  and the size of the membership mushroomed.  In 1976, Phyllis Mintzer was hired as the first full-time director of the Religious School, which has become the largest in the East Bay.

In 1953, for the first High Holy Day services in the new center, Jan Peerce chanted Kol Nidre ... on a phonography.

Henry Goldberg served as the first part-time cantor from 1959 – 62.  He was followed by Cantor Ted Cotler whose glorious voice and warm personality filled the sanctuary from 1965 until his untimely death in 1973.  Shortly afterwards, our library was dedicated in his memory.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Doug Cotler served as cantor from 1973 – 75.  He introduced the new sound of a guitar and the beat of contemporary music.

When Doug left to further his musical career in Los Angeles, Walter Flexo served as the first full-time cantor from 1975-76.  Cantor Richard Silverman was hired in 1976.  He brought to Temple Isaiah a blending of old and new ... the richness of traditional prayers and music by contemporary composers, including himself.  He introduced new music to the congregation that quickly became a part of Temple Isaiah’s traditions.

A second issue that brought heated debates at general meetings started innocently enough in 1957 (prior to Rabbi Robbins).  In appreciation of the High Holy Days services, a member made a contribution and designated it for the start of an Organ Fund.  Until that time, a used piano (expertly played by a talented member) was the sole musical accompaniment for the choir.  This fund seemed a nice, but wildly improbable gesture to many.  Who would contribute to such a luxury?  How many years would it take before we could buy even a used organ?  The floors still hadn’t been sanded, walls needed painting .. we needed more classrooms.  Where does an organ come in?

Some had even stronger objections.  “An organ in a Jewish congregation?”  It was enough that the group had decided against a kosher kitchen and a Conservative rabbi.  Bad enough that we had to get new (Union) prayer books along with the Reform rabbi and that the wearing of yarmulkes and talleissim were optional, not mandatory.  But an organ?  We’d be a church all together!  Fortunately, before too many meetings were broke up, a precedent was set.  Word got back to two of the most articulate opponents that the Conservative Temple in Oakland had just voted to install an organ.  If it was good enough for their father’s temple, it was good enough here!

Little by little the organ fund grew, and contributions to it mirrored the life of the Temple:  In memory of the passing of a dearly loved member .. in honor of a birthday .. an anniversary .. a trip .. a visit .. a Bar Mitzvah .. a wedding.  Three years later, when a good-sized sum was reached, many felt it was time to stop and buy a used organ, “something we can have right now.  Then someday when we get a larger sanctuary, we can worry about a good one.”  But to others, that organ fund represented the faith they had that a sanctuary wasn’t a far off dream.  It would be built and it would be built soon.  And the nicest, finest, newest organ would be ready and waiting to be moved in.

The men who started the organ fund gave a cocktail party, along with two other members, and invited all to come and contribute to the final push.  That did it.  “Through dedicated leadership and enthusiastic cooperation another dream was realized,” was written of that occasion.  “This is the spirit that will get us to the top of the hill, one day soon, permit us to listen to the music of the organ as it comes to a swelling crescendo in a beautiful new sanctuary.”  The dream was realized years later and the talented organist, Richard Timmins, was hired.

In a 1959 interview, Rabbi Dave Robbins said, “Every bit of usable space has now been converted into religious school classrooms, meeting rooms and the chapel.  Our next expansion will have to take place outside the building onto some of the remaining acreage on the hill.”  He looked out a window and motioned toward the knoll with a beautiful oak tree that faced the Lafayette Freeway.  “Some day soon we hope to have a sanctuary up there ...”

Four years later, led by the rabbi, the members stood on the top of the hill.  Will anyone ever forget the summer and fall and winter of ’63?  There was fresh excitement ... fresh nachas ... with ever new step.  First there was the ground breaking party with the Sunday School children picnicking on the site.  Then there was the day the cement was laid ... the first wall put in place ... the day during the High Holy Days, when there was a spontaneous march up the hill to stand inside the open-roofed structure and the thrill of knowing that next year for sure ...

And then finally, that rainy November 1963 evening ... the first Friday night service in the new sanctuary designed by Goodman Steinberg of San Francisco .. no carpeting, no pews, no Bima, three donated Torahs (one by a member family in memory of their parents; a second by a family in honor of their son’s Bar Mitzvah, and the third in memory of a whole Jewish community given by a member whose family, unlike the Torah, didn’t survive Nazi Germany) still in the ark we had previously used.  But such a beautiful service ... such a beautiful building ... such a beautiful feeling of accomplishment.

On February 21, 1964, the new sanctuary was dedicated.  The gold carpeting a gift of the Men’s Club.  Sisterhood pledged several years’ donors for the pews.  The gleaming Ner Tamid over the new art is the only sad note.  It was given in memory of the chair of the fund drive who never lived to see the success of his labors.

In spring of 1964, a handful of people attended another dedication on a knoll in Pleasant Hill:  Oakmont Memorial Park.  Temple Isaiah purchased 304 sites for the first Jewish cemetery in central Contra Costa County.

Much has been accomplished since that first meeting in 1951, yet a great deal remains to be done.  In 2012, Temple Isaiah celebrated it’s 60th anniversary with over 900 families. Each year new chapters are written in the history of Temple Isaiah.

Photo: Sept. 1, 1963 Wedding of Irene Freedman and Bruce Sanders in the old Temple Sanctuary (now the Adult Lounge).


Goodman & Essie Bader
Albert & Ellen Baer
Eric Berger
Sylvia Berger
Maxwell & Hazel Bernstein
Morton & Anne Blake
Harold & Pearl Bloom
Leon & Edith Cohen
Percy & Selma Cohn
Morris & Bobbie Collen
Roger & Gertrude Cook
John & Selma Cronin
Norman & Harriet Daneiko
Harry & Jennie Delmont
Irvin Deutscher
Ludell Deutscher
Jerry & Bernice Deutscher
Marvin Epstein
Mimi Epstein
Claire Fogelhut
Samuel Fogelhut
Harry & Betty Freeman
Albert & Lucille Fuhrer
Barbara Goldeen
Sam Goldeen
Stanley & Rebecca Harris
Elliot & Elizabeth Hartman
Samuel & Mildred Hauer
Gerald Hoytt
Marcia Hoytt (Haber)
Elliot & Marguerite Karlins (Netterley)
David & Elaine Highiet
Bernard & Bette Kaplan
Harry & Florence Kasdan
Fred & Lillian Katzburg
Joseph & Nedda Katzburg
Sid & Ellen Kroff
Irving & Belle Krumholz
Al & Dorothy Learner
Paul & Kathryn Learner
Irving & Doris Leiber
Corinne Levy
David Levy
Sidney & Roz Lifton
Larry & Evelyn Litz
Harry & Lenora Lotzkar
Martin & Rita Manders
Herbert & Elsie Martin
Isidore & Lee Perlman
Al & Annette PettIer.
Charles & Esther Pico
Lewis & Evelyn Rapport (Cohen)
Robert & Hilda Robinson
Manfred & Evelyn Rosengarten
Sidney & Ruth Ross
Arthur & Bernice Scharlach
Harry & Cynthia Schwartz
Emanuel & Frieda Sidorsky
Eleanor Silverman
Hennan Silverman
Harold & Dorothy Siner
David & Rose Spellman
Macy & Sadie Spellman
Donald & Margery Sterns
Sam & Sue Sterns
Jack & Charlotte Stolback
William & Molly Stolmack
Robert & Beatrice Taines
William & Dorothy Tornheim
Morris & Dina Wallin
William & Frances Weinstock
Arthur & Mildred Weisberg
Hy & Hilda Wiseman
Sam & Ruth Wiseman
David & Roslyn Zuckerman