Temple Israel Looks Enthusiastically to Future

Courtesy photo     Temple Israel’s Board President Genevieve Pastor-Cohen (right) and her husband, Josh Cohen, participated in this year’s Fourth of July parade.


Temple Israel has been part of the fabric that defines Alameda since 1896, when the congregation began meeting in Encinal Hall at Bay Street and Lincoln Avenue. The community had no real organized presence here, however, until the establishment of the First Hebrew Congregation of Alameda in 1920. Members attended services in rented halls until 1924, when the first synagogue arose at Oak Street and Alameda Avenue.

In 1977, the school district purchased this property. Three years later, the congregation broke ground for a new place of worship, the current temple on Bay Farm Island. Over time, a series of part-time rabbis and cantors led the congregation. In 1996, Rabbi Allen Bennett signed on as part-time rabbi and served until 2012. In an effort to grow the congregation, the then-Temple leadership decided to hire full-time clergy. Rabbi Barnett Brickner was hired as the congregation’s first full-time rabbi. 

One year later Cantor Brian Reich began work as the temple’s full-time cantor and director of religious education. After five years, the anticipated results did not come to fruition and the congregation found itself financially challenged. The board made the difficult decision not to renew the clergies’ contracts, and allowed them to expire on June 30. Reich retains his position as education director. 

The board turned to Rabbi Steven Chester and asked him to help the temple set its priorities and define what the congregation should look for in a new rabbi. Chester, a native of Minnesota, grew up in Pomona. He attended UCLA and rabbinical school and spent a year in Israel before his ordination in 1971.  

Chester worked in a small congregation in Jackson, Mich., and served as the Jewish chaplain for that state’s prison, before moving to Stockton. In 1989, he became rabbi at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, a positon he held until his retirement in 2011. 

“We are grateful that Rabbi Chester came out of retirement to help us,” Temple Israel’s President Genevieve Pastor-Cohen said. “Rabbi Chester is loved by so many. He will help us discover who we are and what we want for our future. He will help us heal.” Chester is tending to the temple’s pastoral activities. He officiates at weddings and funerals, visits the sick and tends to the temple’s births and bar- and bat-mitzvahs. He is also leading two Friday services and one Saturday morning service.  

Pastor-Cohen said that the temple has found a way to bring out hidden talents in the members of the congregation. “The entire community is playing a part in keeping the synagogue and the love of the synagogue going.” 

The temple is reaching out to its congregation with education. Pastor-Cohen said that Reich plans to tailor classes and activities to mirror the community. “We want to address the lifestyles of families with kids and those whose kids are grown and out on their own,” she said. Also, the temple will be hosting local artists to work with young children from the Alameda community and focus on art, music and dance.

Temple Israel participated in this year’s Fourth of July parade and staffed a booth at the Art & Wine Faire. Temple Israel is also looking beyond the Island City to spread the word about its congregation here. “We are in discussions with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) East Bay to bring programs to the temple to help attract communities outside Alameda, focusing on both family-oriented and adult learning,” she said. 

According to Pastor-Cohen, congregants are hosting 10 house meetings for members to meet Rabbi Chester who plans to report outcomes and recommendations to the community after the High Holy Days, which begin on Sept. 20. 

For more information about Temple Israel, call 522-9355.