11 May 2004

The cart before the horse

The future Beth Israel synagogue

Congregation Beth Israel, located at 1630 Bancroft Way in Berkeley, is the oldest traditional synagogue in the East Bay and the largest Orthodox synagogue in Northern California.

For many years, the congregation had dreamed of replacing its dilapidated brick-faced synagogue, built in 1924, with a built-to-scale replica of the fabled 17th-century wooden synagogue in Przedborz, Poland, which was burned down by Nazis in 1942. The plan received much coverage and support in the media.

The Przedborz synagogue
(photo: Zaklad Architektury Polskiej)

A shortfall in its fund-raising campaign forced the congregation to abandon its dream; the Przedborz synagogue had 40-foot vaulted ceiling carved with Biblical scenes, an elaborate pulpit, and timbers adorned with jewels (see images). Having scaled back the project, Beth Israel decided to construct a contemporary building behind a replica of the original 1924 synagogue fa├žade. Contractor Michael Feiner says that the congregation solicited the neighbors’ input and approval.

Demolition without permit
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

So far, so good. What’s wrong with this story? Only that the congregation put the cart before the horse and began demolising their 80-year old building without a permit. The Pending Zoning Public Matters list on the City of Berkeley’s website (see pdf file) shows among the unscheduled matters an incomplete, non-specific application filed on 21 April 2004 by “Congregation Beth El” [sic]. The age of the building dictates that an application for a demolition permit be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. This step was skipped altogether.

The Berkeley Daily Planet published a story about the demolition on 18 May 2004.


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