Congregation Beth El started in the Clairemont area in 1957. At that time, most of the Jewish population had settled in the eastern part of the city. With the influx of engineers coming to work for Convair, many of them settled in the Clairemont area. The story goes that several Jewish women, interested in finding more Jews in the area, advertised for Mah Jongg players in 1956. Not only did they find their players, but they also found an increased population of Jewish families living in the western side of the city.
Their first concern was for the children, so they started a religious school in a garage in the Clairemont area. Shortly after that, about a dozen families decided to start a synagogue in the Clairemont area. They received donations from several prominent people in the community, and 25 individuals signed a bank note to purchase a duplex on Bannock St. in Clairemont. This became Congregation Beth El, with Rabbi Irving Ganz as its spiritual leader.
The synagogue grew and in 1963, again with the help of many of our community leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, we were able to move to a site on Mt. Acadia Blvd. to build the next Beth El facility. Growth continued and in 1966, for the High Holy Days, it was necessary to rent a large tent to accommodate everyone. The Rabbi during this time was Maurice Idell.
In 1970 a pre-school was started, the Shalom School. Betty Hoffman was hired initially as a teacher, and later she became the school’s director. At that time, Betty said that she would continue as director for 2 years, and after 37 years she finally retired. After Betty’s retirement, Beth Montessori approached us for a location for their school and subsequently became our tenant with a shared mission to bring Judaism and Jewish education to families and individuals.
With the beginning of UC San Diego, a new Jewish group appeared on the scene and joined Beth El, at that time the closest synagogue to the La Jolla area. From 1970 to 1974, Rabbi Sheldon Kirsch was the spiritual leader of Beth El. The people who came from UC San Diego encouraged the Congregation to look in the La Jolla and University City areas for a site for Beth El. By then the membership had greatly increased.
With the help of our then Beth El President Phil Shapiro and Dr. Marshall Taylor, a site for a new Beth El was found at the La Jolla Polo Grounds. During the time the new property was being prepared, Beth El shared the facilities at Mt. Acadia with a Baptist church, which later purchased our property at Mt. Acadia.
Early in 1976, led by our spiritual leader at that time, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, many of our Beth El members marched with the Torahs from Clairemont to our new location in La Jolla. The small private home on the site was used as our sanctuary. Bar & Bat Mitzvah celebrations were held outside on the patio during spring and summer, weather permitting. During winter, the ceremonies were held at what is now the Radisson. For High Holy Day services, we moved to the social hall of the Torrey Pines Christian Church on La Jolla Scenic Drive. The church let Beth El use the facility for several years, at no charge, until our “social hall” was built, today known as the Jacobs Family Community Hall.
During the early years at these facilities, Beth El grew in numbers. We offered education programs not only for the children, but also developed adult education programs. The emphasis on learning has continued to develop over the years.
Our educational programs have included the Distinguished Speaker Series, with speakers such as Alan Dershowitz (attorney and law school professor), Edward Koch (former mayor of New York City), Coretta Scott King (wife of Martin Luther King Jr.), Leon Uris (author), Abba Eban (ambassador), and Simon Wiesenthal (Nazi-hunter). More recently we have hosted Anat Hoffman, Chair of Women of the Wall and Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center in Israel, and we organized the first debate between Rabbi Daniel Gordis, writer and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, and Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street Executive Director.
Our congregation has had the honor of having Rabbis such as Jack Riemer, author of many books and an excellent lecturer; Rabbi Arnold Kopikis, who came to us from Mexico, with a Spanish-speaking congregation, and held services in Spanish for those members. Rabbi Moshe Levin, Emeritus, was with us for 15 years. Rabbi Hillel Silverman served as our interim Rabbi for two years.
In 2002, Rabbi Philip Graubart joined us as our new Senior Rabbi. Over the years his openness, kindness, and compassion, and his intelligent and insightful sermons have continued to draw people to our congregational family. In 2012 we celebrated Rabbi Graubart’s 10-year anniversary with a Gala that provided funding for the Rabbi Graubart Rabbinic Endowed Chair. Congregation Beth El was saddened as Rabbi Graubart ended his tenure after 14 years of service and leadership, and honored him with a farewell celebration in June 2016.
We are fortunate to have Rabbi Avi Libman, who joined us as our Associate Rabbi and Director of Education in 2004, and became Rabbi while leading the congregation until a new Senior Rabbi is named. During this time of transition, Rabbi Libman continues to bring great wisdom, compassion, and acceptance to our community as he has done for the past 12 years.
In April 2006, we joined together for the ceremonial ground breaking weekend for our new Sanctuary and in 2008 we dedicated our beautiful new Stone Family Sanctuary and Turk Family Plaza.
In 2007, we celebrated our 50th Anniversary and recognized that our congregation had grown from our initial 25 families to over 500 families. That number continues to grow and today we number nearly 600 families as we embark upon our 60th Anniversary in 2017. We recently implemented “Our Shared Commitment” membership that encourages the elimination of “traditional” dues and we encourage all levels of observance to eliminate barriers for people to be part of the Beth El family.
Today, Congregation Beth El remembers the beautiful memories of our past and looks forward to a future of embracing more individuals and families into our dynamic and sacred community.