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Star-Crossed Bay Area Synagogue Prays For a New Year Better Than the Last

Oakland, Calif. – Rabbi Chai Levy is considering a High Holy Days sermon on perseverance in the face of great adversity — and given her synagogue’s recent history, she certainly has enough anecdotal material. While Congregation Kol Shofar hasn’t quite achieved Job-like levels of trouble, the past few years have proved staggeringly unlucky for the synagogue, the only Conservative house of worship in Marin County.

In August 2005, police announced a probe of former Kol Shofar controller Larry Mintzer in connection with missing funds; he was arrested that November. Around the same time, Kol Shofar became embroiled in a contentious battle with neighborhood activists opposed to the synagogue’s proposed expansion. But perhaps the cruelest blow came this past June, when the synagogue’s secretary, Michael Jackman — a 55-year-old marketing and public relations executive who was weeks shy of assuming the synagogue’s presidency — died when his truck plunged off a 400-foot embankment on nearby Mount Tamalpais. Jackman, who had just converted from Catholicism within the past few years, left a wife and two young sons.

The building and embezzlement cases are distressing, but they are “nonsense you can set aside,” past president Ron Brown said. “Jackman’s death was something that was real…. He was a great guy; we miss him; we miss his input; we were looking forward to his presidency.”

Levy — who had instructed Jackman in his conversion class — said that Jackman’s death has inspired Kol Shofar to pull together and achieve.

“At one of the shiva minyanim, someone said, ‘How can we be like Mike?’” she recalled. “It can bring out the best in people, and it seems like it did.”

“A lot of people have started to come together and say ‘Let’s keep his vision alive,’” board member Alaina Yoakum agreed. “It’s a little bit of soul-searching and seeking where he might have gone to figure out where that path would’ve led. I think just by his death there’s more of this willingness to collaborate and get together as a team, to unite in this common goal to make this synagogue an even better place.”

Overcoming the calamities is going to be a tall order. Last month, Mintzer pleaded guilty to embezzlement and identity theft charges, admitting he had stolen about $180,000 from Kol Shofar by using the former executive director’s synagogue credit cards and forging his name on receipts. He was sentenced to serve a year in county jail, pay restitution yet to be determined, serve 100 hours of community service and write apology letters to all congregants.

The battle over the renovations, however, is not yet finished. In October of last year, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based not-for-profit known for filing land-use lawsuits on behalf of religious institutions, informed the Town Council in Tiburon — an affluent town of almost 9,000 on the Bay just north of San Francisco — that continued rejection of Kol Shofar’s plan would impinge upon congregants’ religious freedom. The council approved a scaled-down plan in February, but a dissatisfied neighborhood coalition sued Kol Shofar and the town in March, claiming that the project violates state environmental laws and town land-use regulations. The parties are swapping briefs and have a hearing scheduled for January 2008.

While they wait, though, members of Kol Shofar are forging ahead with the congregation’s religious, educational and community service programs, ranging from Kabbalah study to a weekly luncheon for the poor. This month, the synagogue will open a new preschool in collaboration with the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in nearby San Rafael — something that Diane Zack, the synagogue’s immediate past president, called a “longtime dream.”

And Kol Shofar also remains prominent in the progressive Marin County community: Senior Rabbi Lavey Derby is among Northern California’s most renowned and outspoken clergy voices against the death penalty (Kol Shofar is less than six miles from death row at California’s San Quentin State Prison), and in March the rabbi led an interfaith minyan in a prayer vigil after federal immigration agents raided a nearby Latino neighborhood.

“We still educate our kids; when it’s Shabbat we go to synagogue and the rabbi gives a sermon,” Brown said. “And he doesn’t primarily talk about the neighbors; he talks about Torah.”

Attorney Charles Wisch, a former Kol Shofar president and 21-year congregant now serving as the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education’s treasurer, said that Kol Shofar rides out tough times by drawing on its inner strength.

“When people come as visitors from other places in the country, other synagogues, other experiences, almost invariably they say how exciting and vibrant and welcoming and wonderful Kol Shofar is….That’s not the kind of compliment people give because they feel compelled,” Wisch said, also noting that older congregants’ grown children almost invariably want to visit the synagogue when they’re back in town visiting their own families.

Levy agreed: “The last couple of years have been filled with a lot of struggles and painful experiences, but it seems that adversity can strengthen people and this community. I’ve seen people really join together in solidarity and in a very tenderhearted way. It kind of reflects the history of the Jewish people: adversity making us stronger and bringing people together.”

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