Dr. Marc Usatin, Founder
It started off innocuously enough. Debbie and I had just moved out to Walnut Creek from San Francisco where we had been happily ensconced in Temple Emanu-el. After my orthodox / conservative upbringing and subsequent alienation from Judaism, finding Reform Judaism saved my spiritual life. Rabbi Joseph Asher, then the Senior Rabbi at Emanu-el, introduced us to a whole new world. When we moved to Walnut Creek we were lost. None of the synagogues in the area met our needs. Debbie and I were looking for a reform synagogue with a warm and friendly sense of community. Rabbi Avi Magid, then the Assistant Rabbi at Emanu-el, said if you can't find what you are looking for start your own. With the help of Rabbi Maury Hirschman, Regional Director of the UAHC, we got started. My first meeting with Rabbi Hirschman took place at Emil Villa, a well-known barbecue spot next to Kaiser Walnut Creek where I was working. Over two tuna fish sandwiches Maury outlined for me what I had to do. Meetings and services were held in my empty living room. My background came in handy as at first I led services when we couldn't find an itinerant Rabbi. We met and brainstormed names for our synagogue and we chose B'nai Tikvah, People of Hope. Ads were placed in the paper for our new synagogue but my real gambit was to ask all the unaffiliated doctors, nurses, etc. at Kaiser to join. If I ran into a Jewish patient I'd some how slip into the conversation, if appropriate, that we had a great new synagogue in town. Congregation B'nai Tikvah became known by some as Congregation B'nai Kaiser! In April of 1981 we decided that we needed to be real.
If we were to be taken seriously by the community we would need to find a Rabbi, offer High Holiday Services, and start a religious school. I had met Rabbi Raphael Asher once when he taught a class at Temple Emanu-el. When I called Joseph Asher he informed me that his son had just decided to pursue a pulpit rather than a Doctorate and might be interested in our position. Dr. David Niver and I met with Raphael and offered him $1000 to be our part time Rabbi through High Holidays in September of 1981. We told him that if the congregation took off we would negotiate a longer contract. He said he'd take a chance with us and has been doing so for the last 25 years. Dr. Stevan Cavalier was sent to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to find us a talented Jewish singer who might be interested in being our Cantorial Soloist. He returned with Aviva Katzman who was our Cantorial Soloist for the first two years and then went on to Cantorial School at UAHC in New York. Classroom space was negotiated and teachers recruited. We borrowed books from Temple Isaiah and doubled our recruitment efforts. In September 1981 we held Rosh Hashanah services at the Jewish Community Center on Creekside Drive. Tickets were free and over 300 people showed up. When at the last minute our classroom space fell through and we had a large group of students ready to start religious school, Paul Melmed stepped to the plate. He was a member of another synagogue at the time but heard of our dilemma and offered space in his reading clinics to us on Sundays. Amazingly it had all come together and we were on our way.
In 2003, we began a major expansion and renovation of our Synagogue including addition of a 4,000 square foot social hall, commercial kitchen and beautiful bright classrooms. The renovations took about 18-months and left us with a stunning facility of which we are very proud. The social hall is used for both B'nai Tikvah and external events with a capacity of 140 guests.
Congregation B'nai Tikvah has been blessed over the last 25 years by the fact that the right people with great ideas and energy have stepped up when the need arose. We have somehow remained the small friendly synagogue in Walnut Creek interested in creating a community for all people, young and old, single and married, Jews by chance and Jews by choice, the entire fabric of Kallal Yisroel. As we move into the next generations, I hope they will remember who we are and where we came from as they formulate where we are going.
Congregation B'nai Tikvah is here to stay. Our youth have gone on to become Cantors, to attend Rabbinical School, to become religious schoolteachers and youth group advisors. They have been Bar and Bat Mitzvahed, married, and sadly had funerals in our sanctuary. Our dream has become a reality and with all of your help it has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.
Written in celebration of Congregation B'nai Tikvah's 25th Anniversary, April 29, 2006