On Feb. 14, 1918, the First Hebrew Congregation in Modesto was established. Four years later, an Orthodox synagogue on 14th and H streets was built, and although they moved to their current location at 1705 Sherwood Ave. in 1963, the congregation itself remains a vibrant part of the community.
Renamed Beth Shalom (House of Peace) after the move, the Center for Jewish Life, as it is also called, is the only synagogue with a rabbi in all of Stanislaus County.
Rabbi Shalom Bochner, an Albany, New York native who visited Beth Shalom for the first time in 2000 as regional youth director of an affiliated congregation, “had a wonderful time here.”
Something about Modesto reminded him of home, and as he says, it was partly the “warmth of the community” and the small town vibe.
He started out filling in as a substitute rabbi, then he was called back to do holiday services, then he worked part-time. In 2013 he began full-time and has been there ever since.
“From the beginning I was excited about the opportunities and challenges here, and the uniqueness of this place,” he says.
Part of that uniqueness is the diversity of the community. It may not be apparent from a stroll downtown or a cruise up McHenry, but look a bit closer and you’ll find an amalgam of faiths: Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, to name a few.
Bochner says that he is “in contact with a wider range of faith and ethnic leaders than I have been
in other places I’ve lived (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Albany).”
The Center holds interfaith dialogues, where leaders from other religions come together to deliver sermons. Bochner attributes the cohesiveness to the area’s demographic, saying the fact that “we’ve made connections with those communities is something you can maybe only do in a town like this.”
Modesto doesn’t seem like a place that would be associated with a Jewish community, and it’s not very common for Jews to converge on rural areas. Comprising only 0.2 percent of the world’s population, the majority reside either in Israel, or in the U.S. in densely packed urban locales. So for the congregation to not only stick around for 100 years, but to thrive, is quite an accomplishment.
Bochner says that “sometimes congregations form and don’t last,” and “the fact that not only are we here but we’re vibrant, strong, looking forward to the next 100 (years) is a big part of the celebration.”
Some of the original families who were part of the congregation’s inception are still around today, giving Beth Shalom a sense of history as well as a glimpse of its future.
Beth Shalom currently has more than 100 families as members, with another 100 comprising families of both Jewish and other backgrounds who come to partake in the programs offered but aren’t formally members.
In addition to be being a synagogue that provides different kinds of Shabbat (Sabbath) and holiday services, it is also a cultural center and an educational institute. There are programs for adults and children, but they also host a lot of events that are open to the broader community. Concerts, holiday parties, film screenings, a monthly concert series and an annual Café Shalom food and culture event are all part of how Beth Shalom welcomes people of all ages and creeds.
“We can speak to anyone, religious or not, Jewish or not, and say ‘we might have something that interests you,’” says Bochner.
They even have what is called a First Responder’s Dinner every Dec. 24 and 25, where members cook up dinner for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and shut-ins who cannot leave their homes.
Rabbi Bochner says that “We’re delighted when people who aren’t Jewish want to attend as well. We’re a non-proselytizing faith. We don’t do these things to gain converts. We do them because they’re part of our culture.”
Non-members are also encouraged to attend the 100th anniversary celebration gala event, set for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Gallo Center for the Arts. There will be a dinner with kosher-style options, live music, and presentations on the last 100 years of Jewish life in Stanislaus County. In anticipation of the gala, a dinner is being held on Feb. 16, followed by Shabbat services and a lunch on Feb. 17, as well as an afternoon Jewish walking tour of downtown Modesto that same day.
Though the past century has been a fruitful one for the congregation, is looking toward the future, and he hopes that in 2118 it is still a vital part of the community.
“I’d love to see this community still here, with a physical space. I’d like to see a community that continues to serve all ages and takes seriously its mandate to provide Jewish holiday programs, Shabbat and other services, classes and cultural events; that we continue to be a part of the beautiful fabric that is society and culture here in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley.”
He is quite confident that will be the case, adding “I have no doubt that we’ll make it through the changes and challenges, and my blessing will be that a vibrant Jewish life continues.”
100th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATIONSGALA AT THE GALLO: February 24, 2018
@ 6:30 pm
Tickets for the gala dinner and celebrations are available through the congregation’s office by calling 209-571-6060
There is no charge for the Feb. 17 lunch program or the walking tour.
Dinner is $12 for adults, $5 for children and $30 for a family of four or more.
for additional information