When Neil Gerard moved to the Inland Empire in 1977 from New York City, he experienced a culture shock that many Jewish transplants do, finding that the Jewish community in the area was a bit less robust than the one in New York.
“The Inland Empire is not what you would call a Jewish community,” Gerard said. “I grew up in New York City, where the schools were closed on the High Holidays… I came to Upland, Calif. and they didn’t know when the High Holidays were… It was kind of a constant struggle in that sense.”
But a few years after his family settled into their new life, Gerard found the community he had been searching for when he joined Temple Beth Israel (TBI) in Pomona. For his family, and many others who have been a part of the temple over the last eight decades, the temple was more than just a place to worship, it was home.
“Being part of Temple Beth Israel for us is finding a community,” Gerard said. “When you think about the 1930s in Pomona, Calif. and a group of Jews getting together… They formed this Jewish community that has survived for 85 years. … Eight-five years is pretty remarkable, in my opinion.”
In 2016, TBI celebrated its 85th anniversary, a tremendous accomplishment for a temple that, as many others did, often struggled to retain membership and raise needed funding.
The temple was born in 1931, when 18 men signed the articles of incorporation for what was then called the Jewish Center of Pomona and Surrounding Territory, or the Pomona-Ontario Jewish Center, according to TBI’s website. The small congregation rented buildings and held services in the homes of temple members until the first synagogue was constructed in 1950 on Orange Grove Avenue. In 1958, the temple became known as the Beth Israel Community Center.
“It was more like a community center in the beginning, where they tried to all mix together and work together, whether they were Conservative, Orthodox or Reform,” said Margie Kerstine, TBI’s archivist. “They kept a very small congregation but they were very determined not to give up.”
She added, “They had a lot of financial struggles in the beginning. It was just one thing after another. All of these people were very dedicated to making this thing successful… but they had a very hard beginning, a very limited population to work with.”
But in the 1960s, the congregation grew to be so large, Kerstine said, that they raised money to expand. In 1963, the congregation finally moved into a new building constructed on North Towne Avenue, where Temple Beth Israel still flourishes today with a steady group of 400-450 member families.
And it was not only the location of the temple that changed over the years. Originally the congregation followed the Conservative movement, but it later became affiliated with the Reform movement.
In 85 years, other area temples have come and gone, but TBI has persevered. Current Board of Trustees President Marc Kramer said he thinks that is, in part, due to a welcoming atmosphere that its Reform affiliation allowed. Over the years, he said, the temple has opened welcoming arms to anyone who wanted to be a part of the community, even if they couldn’t pay the dues.
“TBI is a Reform temple and one of the tenants of our group is inclusiveness,” Kramer said. “I think that Temple Beth Israel is that kind of a community where everyone feels welcome and can be a Jew the way they are comfortable being a Jew.”
Some key missions of the temple over the years have been a strong education program, demonstrated by the construction of a $1 million education wing in the 1980s, as well as a commitment to helping others, or Tikkun Olam. Kerstine said from her reading on the temple history, the spirit of giving goes back to even the mid-1940s, during World War II. Even as the temple struggled for money, members were bending over backwards to help soldiers in the community.
More recently, TBI’s commitment to supporting the community has even been reflected in its appearance. Where there was once a front lawn sprawling along busy Towne Avenue, there is now a lush community garden. The garden, a partnership with Claremont nonprofit Uncommon Good, helps feed the hungry in the local community.
“It goes from our High Holidays food drive, where we have literally put tons of food in the local food bank, to our Mitzvah Day in March,” Gerard said. “It’s taking a huge portion of our front lawn out and replacing it with a community garden… I think it’s one of our themes.”
With a focus on the people in their community as the center of it all, it’s only fitting that this year a committee of temple members launched an archiving project to uncover and document TBI’s rich history.
Kerstine and several volunteers have started going through all the old board meeting minutes, starting as far back as 1943, as well as working to identify all the members in the temple’s collection of confirmation class portraits and other photos. Ultimately, the entire record of TBI’s human history will be scanned and available on the temple’s website for anyone to peruse.
Kerstine said it has been tedious but interesting to piece together the temple’s story from the discussions she reads in the board minutes.
“If you don’t know what the past is, you feel suspended in time. It’s a good feeling to do (the archiving) and it’s very refreshing and it’s very addictive doing this, you keep looking for more,” Kerstine said. “It’s almost like putting together a puzzle, a puzzle of life.”
She said that although the project will be a long haul, it is important for the temple to have a strong record of its history that future generations—over the next 85 years and more—can look back at to better understand and appreciate what the congregation has been through.
“Knowing the history, it makes you feel more a part of the institution. It makes you realize how much was done before you got there. It’s here for you now and you have to do more to keep it alive for the next generation,” she said. “It kind of embeds that into your soul.”
Lauren Gold is a contributing writer to Jlife.