Temple Israel’s roots in Alameda date back to 1896 when “The First Hebrew Congregation,” a Reform temple, was founded. The congregation met at the long-gone Encinal Hall at the corner of Bay and Lincoln streets, hired a rabbi for High Holy Day services and had a religious school. It disbanded around the turn of the 20th century due to lack of funds. Further attempts to build a synagogue also failed and the congregation ceased to exist.
Feeling the absence of an organized Jewish presence in Alameda, a group of families began collaborating in 1918. One November night in 1920, on the second floor of Miller’s Drug Store, Frank Jacobs, Gustave Kapler, Sam Applebaum, Benjamin Borsuk, Adolf Feldhammer, Daniel Fisher, David Garfinkle, Louis Glaiberman, Abe Hellman, and Max Sheramsky came together with one thing in mind – the establishment of a Jewish community in Alameda. Soon after that the articles of incorporation for the “First Hebrew Congregation of Alameda,” the third such congregation in Alameda with that name, were signed. Frank Jacobs signed as president and Gustave Kapler’s signature was on the line for the vice-president of the new congregation. Services were held in rented halls until the first synagogue was built, mainly by the members, on the corner of Oak Street and Alameda Avenue.
Work on the new synagogue building began on July 15, 1924. Much of the construction was done by temple members. Adolf Feldhammer and his friend, Conrad Roth, led the work crews and the congregation helped in any way they could! On September 24, 1924, the partially completed building was dedicated, with Cantor J.L. Abramovitz serving as spiritual leader. The congregation was known as Temple Beth Israel. Art Kapler’s was the first bar mitzvah celebrated in the new building. Other families who belonged to the temple in the beginning included the Alexanders, Bahrs, Bardoffs, Bermans, Cohens, Craners, Dorfmans, Ferros, Frankels, Friedmans, Gardners, Goldfarbs, Greenwalds, Jacobys, Kouffs, Morrises, Strausses, Wolfs, and Zimmermans.
During the Depression, the synagogue was often closed due to lack of funds but High Holy Day services were held every year. After the start of WWII, with the Navy Air Force base located in Alameda, the Jewish population of Alameda grew. Many new families joined the congregation in the 40’s and early 50’s. Among these were the Kofmans, the Hankins, the Schwartzes, and the Kleins. After a fundraising drive led by Abe Kofman, the community was able to pay off the temple mortgage and, in 1946, The First Hebrew Congregation was able to hire its first full-time spiritual leader, Rabbi John Zuker. One year later, he left and in July of 1947 the congregation hired Rabbi Gunther Gates. Rabbi Gates would remain the congregation’s spiritual leader and director of the religious school for 34 years, until his passing in 1981. In that time he and his wife, Gretel, would endear themselves not only to the congregation but to all of Alameda.
In the 1950’s the congregation recognized the need for a larger facility. All religious services, classes, and events were being held in the sanctuary and the kitchen was quite inadequate for the congregation’s needs. Will Garfinkle served as the building chair and in February, 1955 ground was broken for a social hall. The sanctuary was also updated with a new Ark and pews. In 1963, thanks to contributions from the Kapler, Kaplan, Kofman, and Schwartz families, new classrooms were added under the supervision of Will Garfinkle.
In 1977, the Alameda Unified School District purchased the First Hebrew Congregation building to allow for the expansion of the Alameda High School campus. A new site for the temple was found on Bay Farm Island and the ground was broken for the current building in May of 1980. At that time, J.D. Schuster was the board president, Dr. Maurice Klotz and Bruce Schneider were the vice presidents, Dr. Mel Schwartz served as the treasurer, and Helen Kutin was the secretary. The members of the board were Jack Barlas, Sylvia Burke, Roger Finberg, Dr. Jay Garfinkle, Wilfred Garfinkle, Walt Jacobs, Art Kapler, Diane Laub, Marilyn Rothman, and Leo Samuel. There was both an active Men’s Club and a Sisterhood. Louis Savel celebrated the first bar mitzvah in the current building; Kimberlee Garfinkle’s was the first bat mitzvah.
When Rabbi Gates died, Cantor Simon Cohen served as the spiritual leader until a new Rabbi was hired. During the course of the next 15 years the congregation was led by a series of rabbis and cantors.
In 1985, the congregation affiliated with the Reform movement, known at the time as the UAHC but now known as the Union for Reform Judaism. Still, aware of being the only organized Jewish presence on the Island and wanting to be welcoming to all Jews in the community, the temple preserved some of the congregation’s Conservative minhag.
In 1996, Rabbi Allen Bennett was hired part-time and continued to serve the congregation for the next 16 sixteen years until his retirement in 2012. During his tenure he was assisted by Cantor Pamela Sawyer and administrator Mindy Meyers.
In 2012, Rabbi Barnett Brickner was hired as the Temple’s first full-time rabbi. One year later, in 2013, Cantor Brian Reich was hired as the Temple’s full time Cantor and Director of Religious Education. Under Rabbi Brickner and Cantor Reich’s spiritual guidance and with the dedicated work of the lay leadership, our membership has grown to 155 families, the largest in the temple’s history. Both its historical underpinnings and rich diversity of its membership contribute to the strength and dynamism of our Temple Alameda family.
Rabbis & Cantors
Historical listing of Rabbis and Cantors who have served (or who are serving) Temple Israel of Alameda:
Rabbi John Zuker*
Rabbi Gunther Gates (1947-1981)*
Rabbi Mark Rubenstein
Rabbi Mimi Biach
Rabbi Patti Karlin-Neuman
Rabbi Allen Bennett (1996-2012)
Rabbi Barnett Brickner (2012 – present)
Cantor J.L. Abramovitz *
Cantor Joseph Davidson*
Cantor Samuel Cohen*
Cantor Simon Cohen*
Cantor Pamela Sawyer
Cantor Brian Reich (2013-present)