Hamish: Beth Shalom Celebrates 60 Yearsby Brie Stimson September 26, 2018
The word Beth Shalom’s rabbi likes to use to describe their temple is “hamish.” It’s a Yiddish word that means homelike. “It’s an atmosphere where everybody belongs,” Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel says.
The Chula Vista synagogue isn’t as large as some of the others in town, but they make up for it in fellowship, inclusivity and history.
And with the 60th anniversary this year, there’s a lot of history.
The temple was purchased on June 24, 1958 from St. John’s Episcopal Church by Samuel Vener, the temple’s co-founder and first president, who also helped construct the Chula Vista waterfront.
The church was first built in 1924, and after Beth Sholom (now Beth Shalom) bought the building, co-founder Sam Moskowitz transformed the plaster walls in the sanctuary into wood paneling and built the ark and the bimah in use today.
The first day of services in 1958 was standing room only, and the synagogue hopes to one day restore the stunning raftered ceiling visible in the photos. Beth Shalom President Arlene LaGary says that membership was at a high point in the 1950s. “A lot of families, and a lot of them were Holocaust survivors, military,” but over the years membership dwindled.
“Before 1958, you wouldn’t see that many Jews in Chula Vista, the only real synagogue around was the one that is there today, Ohr Shalom,” synagogue member Steve Goldkrantz adds. Beth Israel was also located on 2nd and Beech in downtown until 1926. “Jews were not allowed to own land in North County,” he says. Many of the congregants were post-WWII immigrants, coming from places like Russia, Germany, Italy – and many came to the U.S. through Mexico.
“Initially though in 1957, they started as an informal group and it was just the Chula Vista Jewish Center and they would meet in Sam Vener’s house and people’s garages, kind of like Apple,” Steve jokes. After they bought the synagogue, they were originally in the social hall before moving into the sanctuary.
“It’s interesting cause you have a combination of the old and new, but the newer stuff is from 1967,” he says. The sanctuary’s Torah table and wood paneling along the walls are both from 1958.
Now, 60 years later, the congregation has grown to approximately 60 families. “We’re trying very much to grow,” Arlene says. They add new congregants when people moving into the community or even when people finding them online.
“It’s a smallish congregation, but each and every one is very, very special, and maybe they came here looking for something the way I did,” Jeanne Silverstein, a member who informally runs the synagogue’s kitchen, remarks.
Jeanne was living in Kansas about 10 years ago when her son asked her to move to Chula Vista to live closer to him following a death in the family. “So I moved here, knew nothing about Chula Vista or what part of town I was in,” she says. “And I thought I had retired and I thought ‘boy, this is great, yeah, I’m going to read all the books I never did’ and etc. and etc., and then it hit me there must be something more to life.” Her niece asked her if she had considered joining a synagogue. She went online and looked up temples in Chula Vista. “I came here for a Friday and a Saturday and immediately had family and friends,” she tells me. Five years later, she’s practically taken over the kitchen. She now comes every Friday and Saturday. “I have to come see my family and take care of them,” she smiles.
Jeanne tells me one of the things they love about the temple is that they hold many events in the social hall. “The bar mitzvahs are here, the bat mitzvahs are here and the whole congregation comes,” she says. “We’re family and we get to celebrate with family.”
This year, Beth Shalom will hold their 60th Anniversary Celebration at Elijah’s Banquet Hall on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. Dr. Joellyn Zollman will be the guest speaker, there will be “A Walk Through Time” video presentation, chronicling Beth Shalom’s six-decade history, they will honor their Circle of Benefactors, the Chula Vista Art Guild will display and sell their paintings and Yale Strom & Hot P’Stromi will play some klezmer favorites. They are also hoping to raise some money during the celebration to take care of necessary updates to the synagogue. Arlene says they hope to be able to get a new roof in the social hall and air conditioning. Eventually, as mentioned before, they would like to uncover the wooden rafters in the sanctuary’s ceiling. The building was designated as a historical site in 2016.
But all of the updates are meaningless without the people who fill the synagogue. Rabbi Samuel stresses inclusivity as a core value, which even crosses religious lines. “One of the things that we emphasize as very important is Christian-Jewish relations,” he tells me. They often rent the social hall out on Sundays to church groups.
As far as the congregation, the rabbi says everyone relates as they are – as family. “I think that’s a very rare gift that we bring the San Diego Jewish community, one we can all be very proud of.” He also empathizes the importance of being real. “You have to be real towards each other and you have to be real with ourselves.” He adds, “The attitude is when the congregant is ready, the synagogue shall appear.”
As I wave goodbye and walk to my car (following an invitation to join the congregation in a movie and a warning to drive safely on the busy roads) I’m left thinking about the synagogue. Beth Shalom is a building made of wood and plaster. It needs a new roof in the social hall, air-conditioning and the sanctuary’s ceiling should be restored. But Beth Shalom is more than a building. It’s made of each family who attends services; it’s made of the memories of six decades of bar and bat mitzvahs; it’s made of a hand held in a time of need and a hug in a time of congratulations; it’s made of the hopes and dreams of the co-founders of the synagogue and the first congregants, including the immigrants who made their way across the world in a perilous time to find a place they could worship; it’s made of each person who leaves the place better than they found it or who was bettered for being there. And that is something worth celebrating.