RICHMOND -- When Temple Beth Hillel opened at its current location in the Hilltop area, the surrounding terrain was barren. However, the Jewish faith has a holiday known as "Tu Bishvat" -- the New Year for the trees -- and every February, the congregation's children would plant seedlings. Now, the temple is surrounded by very large pine and cypress trees.
It's a perfect metaphor for the founding families of the only synagogue in West Contra Costa. On Nov. 10, eight longtime members of the congregation were honored at a dinner at Beth Hillel. Lee Blumenfeld, Clara-Rae Genser, Harry Kiefer, Adolph Kamil, Henry Linker, Pearl Wolffs, Sam Genirberg and Rose Genirberg were toasted for their lifelong commitments to Beth Hillel and to Richmond.
Each of the honorees was interviewed for an oral history, with excerpts shown during the dinner.
Temple Beth Hillel opened in 1964 at Park Central and Hilltop. It was preceded by a Jewish Community Center on Macdonald Avenue, where Target is currently located. At the time, the congregation included several prominent Richmond families.
"There was a thriving community of Jewish merchants," said former temple President Josh Genser, son of Clara-Rae Genser. "They owned Blumenfeld Department Store, they owned Wolff's Jewelers, Mary Landers shoes."
The community center was located on land that was slated to be redeveloped into a Montgomery Ward store.
"We knew we needed a larger building and away from that much traffic," Clara-Rae Genser said. "At the time, one of our members was Walter Wolff, who owned a jewelry store on Macdonald, and he was into real estate. By what process, I don't know, but he found out about this property which was owned then by Standard Oil and we were able to purchase it from them for a very nice price."
Said Linker, "It was exciting. And you have to start raising money. Up until then we had something that was inexpensive, relatively. Like all organizations, you go to the congregation and show the plans and get them excited about the prospects of having a building of their own."
Since the temple opened, the congregation has remained fairly stable — around 100 families. Clara-Rae Genser called it a "closely-knit" community.
"We face the fact that we're never going to be a large Jewish community," Linker said. "People who came to this large general area preferred to live in Berkeley and Walnut Creek. People in those communities grew while we remained largely static."
Richmond has changed over the years -- Blumenfeld's is long gone, for instance -- but the temple on the hill has remained, working with the community.
One of the ways Beth Hillel has worked with the community is through the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program. Created in the 1960s, GRIP brought together congregations of various faiths to work for a better city by providing a soup kitchen and shelter, farmers markets, land trusts and other initiatives.
Now, as the current temple approaches its 50th anniversary, the founding members were delighted to be honored.
"It was fabulous," Wolffs said. "It was a wonderful occasion, it was a wonderful affair. We were surprised at the elegance. They decorated the hall. The food was great. It was catered. They screened the interviews."
Said Linker, "I think when you get older, you do appreciate the people recognizing the role you played even if you aren't playing it anymore."
Clara-Rae Genser said with a laugh that she particularly enjoyed the Master of Ceremonies -- her son, Josh.
Josh Genser said the only regret is that Beth Hillel didn't honor its founders sooner.
"We should have done it 10 years ago," he said.
Just the fact that they were celebrated was enough for Wolffs.
"It's wonderful to be living and seeing all the changes that are happening," she said. "I'm very grateful to be still alive."