With a history going back more than 150 years, Congregation Beth Israel is San Diego’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation. It is also the only known synagogue in the western United States that has occupied three separate buildings that are still standing — each originating in a different century.
The mid 1800s, with the California Gold Rush, attracted many adventurers to the new state, including Jewish merchants.
At first, the Jewish immigrants settled in San Francisco, but they didn’t like the cold climate, so they headed south, said Rabbi Michael Berk, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel.
“San Diego was considered a good place for business, with a natural harbor and a growing population,” Rabbi Berk explained.
The first few Jews in the San Diego area settled in and around Old Town. Coming together as a congregation under the name Adath Yeshurun (Assembly of Israel), they met in private homes and were on the liberal (Reform) side of Judaism. Their liberal mindset was understandable, added Rabbi Berk, “Who comes to the Wild West?”
In 1887, the congregation incorporated as Congregation Beth Israel (House of Israel) and two years later, they built their first synagogue at Second Avenue and Beech Street. There, the congregation remained for almost 40 years. In 1926, they moved to its second synagogue at Third Avenue and Laurel Street, their home for 75 years, “half our history,” said Berk.
In 2001, having grown from 400-500 to 1,300 members, Congregation Beth Israel moved to its current location — a three-acre site 12 miles north of downtown in University City, east of La Jolla.
Today, the first synagogue stands in Heritage Park in Old Town, where it was moved in the 1970s and is used for special events. The second building, still at Third and Laurel, is a Conservative synagogue — Ohr Shalom.
In 2011, Congregation Beth Israel celebrated its rich history of 150 years with a year of events, including some at the former synagogues. They also commissioned a new Torah, hand scribed by a woman.
As a Reform Congregation, Beth Israel embraces this rich history and continues to be forward-thinking. Rabbi Berk also likes to reach out to interfaith couples and has officiated at several interfaith weddings. “We are an open, welcoming, accepting congregation,” said Rabbi Berk. “What is central to our mission is to be an honorable and responsible representative of the Jewish community, a mothership. We strive to live up to this.”
Beth Israel’s areas of focus, with dozens of services, programs and classes, include spiritual and social connection, learning, caring and social action, including connection to Israel. The synagogue offers regular worship services on Friday and Saturday, as well as spiritual counseling, funerals, weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs. Those who want to expand their social network can join several groups, including a men’s club, a women’s group,
choir, band and New to Judaism classes.
In addition to a fulltime pre-school and religious studies for children and teens, Beth Israel offers a variety of adult classes for studying social issues and Judaism.
Rabbi Berk said he has enjoyed expanding the congregation’s cutting-edge program, Caring Community, a large group of volunteers who reach out regularly to help others. It is important, he added “because we are not a neighborhood synagogue. Our members come from all over San Diego, although the majority live in La Jolla, University City or Carmel Valley. Modern San Diegans are busy and active and there is not a nearby pool of volunteers, so this program allows us to adjust to modern life. We can still show that we care and are willing to do good deeds. If you’re ill, volunteers will bring you tea and chicken soup.” Volunteers also call on those in the hospital or who have had a death in the family.
Other important areas of focus, according to Rabbi Berk, are “sacred aging,” mental health (offering a place of care and comfort) and the Linda and Shearn Platt Teen Trip to Israel, which in its second year, sent 17 teenagers to Israel. “This has been an impactful program and the kids are expected to stay involved,” he said.
Rabbi Berk began serving as Beth Israel’s senior rabbi in 2007. He was born in San Bernardino and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley. He then attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, earning a master’s degree in Hebrew Letters.
During this time he met his wife, Aliza, and the two were ordained as rabbis on the same day. She is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in healing and grief counseling. (Unlike ministers, rabbis retain their titles, even if they are not leading congregations.) They have two children and three grandchildren.
Before coming to Beth Israel, Berk served at Temple Emanu El in San Jose, Beth Sholom Temple in Santa Monica, Temple Beth Torah in Ventura and as the regional director of Pacific Central West Council, for the Union for Reform Judaism. His brother William is also a rabbi, living in Israel.
Congregation Beth Israel
Address: 9001 Towne Center Drive, San Diego
(Across from Westfield UTC shopping mall)
Phone: (858) 535-1111
Year Established: 1861
Members: 1,150 families
Average Weekend Attendance: 200
Leaders: Rabbi Michael Berk, senior rabbi; Rabbi Jordie Gerson, assistant rabbi; Rabbi Arlene Bernstein, rabbi, cantor.
Community Programs/Projects: Young Adults (20-30), Adult Learners Network, DayTimers (cultural outings and book discussions), Women of Beth Israel, Caring Community, Israel Connection, Social Action Committee, New to Judaism and Men’s Club, Platt Teen Trip to Israel. Pre-school (open to members and non-members); religious studies classes for children, teens and adults.
• Fall-Spring: First Fridays, Tot Shabbat and Shabbat Simcha
at 6 p.m. Erev Shabbat at 8 p.m. Second Fridays, Family Shabbat at 6:15 p.m. Soul Food Shabbat at 8:30 p.m. Third Fridays, Teen Shabbat at 6 p.m. Erev Shabbat at 6:15 p.m. Fourth Fridays, Erev Shabbat Chai at 6:15 p.m. Fifth Fridays, Erev Shabbat at 6:15 p.m.
• Summer: Friday, Erev Shabbat at 6:15 p.m.
• All Year: Saturday, Shabbat Torah Morning Study at 8:30 a.m. Lay-Led Morning Minyan Service at 10 a.m. Shabbat at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.