Founding of Congregation B’nai Tikvah
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. Acting on the sage advice of Rabbis Avi Magid and Maury Hirschman, I decided to start a congregation in our new East Bay community.
Meetings and services were held in my empty living room. 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, and I asked unaffiliated doctors, nurses, etc. at Kaiser to join. If I ran into a Jewish patient I’d somehow 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.
By early 1981, it was clear that 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. When I called Joseph Asher, he informed me that his son had just decided to pursue a pulpit and might be interested in our position. We met with Rabbi Raphael Asher and offered him $1,000 to be our part-time rabbi through High Holidays in September of 1981. To say the least, that turned out to be a shrewd investment. We reached out to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and found Aviva Katzman, who became our first cantorial soloist. We borrowed books from Temple Isaiah and 300 people worshipped at our free Rosh Hashanah services, held at the Jewish Community Center on Creekside Drive.
In the meantime, we found teachers for the new school and recruited a large group of students to attend. Even when planned classroom space fell through at the last minute, a community member from another congregation was there to lend us rooms we could use. Thanks to the commitment and generosity of the community, it all came together.
Congregation B’nai Tikvah has been blessed over the last 37 years by the fact that the right people with great ideas and energy 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 K’lal Yisrael.
Congregation B’nai Tikvah is here to stay. Our youth have gone on to become cantors, to attend Rabbinical School, to become religious school teachers and youth group advisors. They have become b’nai mitzvah, gotten 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.