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While the founders had the courage to build a congregation and physical space where nothing existed before, the selection of the first salaried rabbi began an ongoing search for spiritual leadership. Each time the congregation initiated a search for a spiritual leader they would answer questions about the type of leadership needed for the congregation at that time in the life cycle of the organization. Over the 75 year history of Congregation Beth El, there has been an impressive array of rabbinic leadership, each bringing unique talents. Even though its roots are clearly in the Reform movement, there were times when the congregation was drawn to rabbis with more traditional Conservative and Orthodox roots. While some reflected a strong commitment to the education of children and youth, others were more comfortable as scholar-rabbis. While some rabbis emphasized innovation and change, other emphasized tradition and observance.  All have benefited from the talents and passions of a vibrant and creative membership.

Congregation Beth El’s Rabbinic Leadership Through Time:

  • Rabbi Joseph Gitin (1945-1947) served as the congregation’s founding rabbi who volunteered his part-time services and leadership during the congregation’s first years.
  • Rabbi Leo Trepp (1947-1950) arrived from Germany after the war and helped the community welcome the influx of war-time émigrés.
  • Rabbi Sidney Akselrad (1951-1962) reflected a strong adherence to the core Jewish values of social justice and guided the congregation through the McCarthy anti-Communism era and the early days of the Civil Rights movement. He was a founding member of the Berkeley Ecumenical Council of Clergy and marched with Reverend Marin Luther King in Selma in 1965.
  • Rabbi M. Arthur Oles (1963-1966) instituted Saturday Shabbat services at Beth El (until then, services were only on Friday nights).
  • Rabbi Arthur Abrams (1966-1970) supported the congregation’s effort to establish a nursery school with a philosophy of a play-based, developmental program focusing on the whole child. Camp Kee Tov also began during this period with congregational support and leadership, primarily from the Schnur family. Kee Tov began with about 100 campers, built on the same traditions of ruach (spirit) evident today.
  • Rabbi George Vida (1971) served as an interim rabbi who loved his year at Beth El so much that upon his retirement, he and his wife, Emmie, moved to back to Berkeley and promptly joined Congregation Beth El. As a scholar-in-residence he served as a mentor to many congregants and provided valued leadership in the Shabbat morning Torah Study along with Emmie. In 1981, the congregation’s library was named after him. In 2010 the reference section of the library in the new synagogue was re-dedicated as the “Rabbi George and Emmie Vida Reference Library.”
  • Rabbi Leo Abrami (1971-1976) reflected the scholarly approach and introduced more traditional practices, in consonance with Reform Judaism’s general movement during this period. It was during his tenure that the Beth El Torah Study began with Marian and Albert Magid studying together in the synagogue prior to services. Congregants soon joined them, listening, discussing and growing closer. Within two years congregants were taking turns in presenting the drashot (interpreting and unraveling the meaning of the weekly Torah portion) and had become so numerous that soon they convened in the downstairs library.
  • Rabbi Arnold (“Avi”) Levine (1976-1994) brought youth, energy and innovations to the services, raised expectations for Bar Mitzvah students and supported the new regional Midrasha (high school) program. His own two-year-old became a member of the newly formed Gan Katan class (ages 2-3), adding a third grouping to the already established Aleph (ages 3-4) and Bet (ages 4-5) classes. During Rabbi Levine’s tenure, the Homeless Meal program was launched by a group of dedicated volunteers as a stop-gap measure until people found housing, jobs, got food stamps or other assistance. 
  • Rabbi Ferenc Raj (1995-2007) fulfilled the congregation’s desire for a senior scholar who would combine teaching and spiritual leadership. Recognizing the range of congregants’ Reform spiritual needs and wanting to offer choice, he introduced two different siddurim (prayer books) for the High Holidays. He strongly supported Marianne Magid and Dan Magid in their effort to initiate a Shabbat morning minyan (in 1998) prior to Torah Study, as well as their crafting of a traditional siddur for the minyan. He also promoted outreach to the African-American community as a way of annually celebrating the birth of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He helped the congregation manage the significant transition from Arch and Vine to the new synagogue on Oxford Street.
  • Rabbi Yoel Kahn (2007- 2021) brought his scholarly interest in prayer to revitalize the congregation’s siddur as he laid the groundwork for creating a learning community with new senior staff, and a call for the Congregation’s first strategic plan. When Rabbi Kahn became Congregation Beth El’s spiritual leader in 2007, he inherited an impressive range of programs, many of which not only originated with congregational support but have expanded greatly over the years. Today the nursery school, which began with one classroom of mixed ages, is filled to capacity with 64 children and 10 staff. Camp Kee Tov, which began with 100 campers, enrolls over 700 campers supported by 90 counselors, most of whom were campers themselves. The monthly Homeless Meal program serves 200 guests staffed by a crew of 40 volunteers, and backed up by an email list of 300 volunteers, a medical clinic and other social services. Midrasha today serves 160 teens, with 16 staff and includes students from Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco (including Congregation Sha’ar Zahav since 1993) Counties. The Shabbat Morning Minyan continues today with around 30 participants, while Torah Study enjoys an attendance averaging 45 participants.
  • Rabbi Reuben Zellman (2009 - 2018) shared his exceptional musical knowledge, creativity and talent serving as Beth El’s Associate Rabbi and Music Director. In his rabbinic role, he nurtured and taught hundreds of b’nei mitzvah students and shared his extraordinary compassion and pastoral ability throughout the congregation. Rabbi Reuben reinvented and expanded the Beth El Chorus. Rabbi Reuben's relationship and understanding of the LGBTQ Jewish community created understanding, communication and practices at Beth El that continue to inform and support our understanding and how Beth El creates a welcoming, enlightened atmosphere that continues to be part of the reason Jews from a variety of backgrounds feel that Beth El is a synagogue they feel comfortable belonging to.

Over the years, as rabbis took sabbaticals or when the congregation was in the midst of searching for a rabbi, interim rabbis filled in. These include: Raphael W. Asher (1980-81), Gary Tishkoff (1990-91), Sam Braude and Shelley Waldenberg (1994-95).

Wed, February 28 2024 19 Adar I 5784