In 1917, Morris Oser was elected first congregational president, Bernard Koltonowski, vice president, J. Oscar Goldstein, secretary treasurer, with Samuel Korn, Isadore Greitzer & Dave Breslauer comprising the board of trustees. In 1918, a permanent synagogue was established in the Ostroski Building at Second and Main Streets. The only synagogue north of Sacramento, it was described by the Chico Daily Enterprise as beautifully designed and appointed according to Jewish traditions, with a seating capacity of about 100, ample for the present needs of Chico Jewry.
Isadore Greitzer helped convert the space into a synagogue and he designed the cabinet to serve as the Ark containing the Torah. He had the cabinet made by the Diamond Match Company and installed it himself. The Torah scroll was presented to the congregation by Ricka Breslauer (great-grandmother of current members Alan Tochterman and Donna Greenberg) of the nineteenth century Chico pioneer family. Handwritten with a goose quill and handmade ink, it was an honor and a treasure to be received by CBI. A local church donated benches for the synagogue.
Dedication of the synagogue on June 3, 1918 attracted wide interest. The dedication services began with a Hebrew prayer chanted by Attorney J. Oscar Goldstein, in his rich baritone as stated in the Chico Daily Enterprise. Mr. Goldstein made introductory remarks and a benediction was recited by Rabbi Herman Lissauer from Temple Beth Israel in San Francisco, who also delivered the sermon. Mr. Goldstein served as lay leader from 1919 to 1924.
Due to a decline in the Jewish population, the synagogue was disbanded in the 1930’s. It was briefly revived during WW II when an Army Corps Base was established at the Chico Municipal Airport. Following the end of the war the congregation was again disbanded. At that time the Torah was turned over to Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco for safekeeping.
In February 1957 Rabbi Leo Trepp, faculty member of Napa and Santa Rosa Colleges, was invited to attend a Religious Emphasis Week at Chico State University. While in Chico, Rabbi Trepp addressed a gathering at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Puritz. This meeting appeared to stimulate interest in reactivating the congregation. Two events were organized in the spring of 1957, a Sunday School for Jewish children and the first community Seder at the Hotel Oaks on April 16th. Also, later that year a Rosh Hoshanah service and dinner were held in September at the Hotel Oaks. Approximately 60 persons attended.
Out of these beginnings in 1957, the congregation was formally reorganized in 1958 and took the name Beth Israel that had been used in 1918. The initial membership was about 15 families. During these renaissance years the congregation met in various locations, sometimes at the Unitarian Fellowship Church on Filbert Avenue, sometimes the Seydel Building, and sometimes the Senator Theater on Main Street. High Holy Day observances took place at the Hotel Oaks or Knights of Pythias all on W. First Street or the Chico Art Club on Third and Pine Streets.
In 1960, Attorney Mendel Tochterman drafted Articles of Incorporation for the congregation, which was incorporated as a non-profit religious organization. Congregation Beth Israel received its charter on January 21, 1961. In that same year CBI’s first Bar Mitzvah ceremony of Tracy Norman Puritz, son of Mr. & Mrs. Sam Puritz, took place.
Martin London served in the 1970’s as both spiritual head and cantor. Following him, services were led by Shelly Little, a student at Chico State, for one or two years. Following Shelly, Sidney Shnayer or another member conducted services. Besides lay members, the congregation also drew upon visiting rabbis, generally from San Francisco. Initially CBI was affiliated with the Reform branch of Judaism. However, in the late 1960’s, the congregation broke with the UAHC and has remained unaffiliated with any of the major branches of Judaism.
Dr. Leonard J. Kent (current member Nitsa Schiffman’s uncle) spearheaded the movement to own our very own religious home. A search by Sam Belmonte (married to Marilynn Snower) resulted in finding the building at Hemlock and E. Fourteenth Streets. A milestone was reached by the congregation in 1969 when, after half a century of sporadic existence, it was able to purchase this building. This was primarily due to the fact that Jack Rawlins (married to Elizabeth Oser), Dr. Kent’s neighbor, loaned CBI the funds to purchase the building from the Salvation Army for a permanent Synagogue – assisted by ten more individuals donating funds to help accomplish the acquisition. One of CBI’s lay leader’s husband, Tim Little, brought Headstart to CBI and they remained tenants for about 2 years. Then, for a period in the 1970’s, the building was also used by the Drama Department of Butte College to hold classes and performances. In 1975, the Church of Reorganized Latter Day Saints used the facilities on Sunday mornings. These revenues, and the monies brought in by rummage sales, helped Congregation Beth Israel to burn its mortgage in 1975 at a party happily hosted by Sadie Morten, mother of Shelly Little.
Members of the congregation did the renovating, working evenings and weekends to turn the building into a synagogue. The Ark is the oldest part of the synagogue having been used by the congregation in earlier years. Upon re establishing the congregation, the Torah was brought from San Francisco and presented back to the congregation by Attorney Mendel Tochterman (grandson of Ricka Breslauer).
Dr. Laurence York and his wife Carol, both artists, designed and built handcrafted doors which have since been replaced. The traveling Ark was redesigned and rebuilt by Norman Corwin. The Torah table was built by Rene Price’s father, Charlie Nichols of Gridley. During the 1970’s, Dr. Irv Schiffman and his wife, Nitsa, had the windows on each side of the Ark removed and the back wall paneled with wood. The Ark was re paneled and Nitsa painted the gold leaf.
Sarah Achene and David Halimi were responsible for raising the Bima to its present height. Jess and Rene Price constructed the steps. During the ensuing years, Irv and Nitsa Schiffman were instrumental in getting a new ceiling installed as well as carpeting on the walls and the flooring redone. Long-time member Bracha (Beverly) Pence created and made the mosaic over the doors leading into the back yard.
No history of CBI would be complete without including the formation of, as well as the contributions of, Haverot/Sisterhood. Haverot started in the spring of 1989 with a Birth of a Sisterhood tea. The name Haverot was chosen. As translated from Hebrew it means “women friends." Haverot began with about ten enthusiastic women and by the spring of 2003 had reached a membership of about 65 women. Haverot/Sisterhood rarely spends money on itself with the exception of the Big Tenth Anniversary Blowout in the spring of 1999. Haverot was formed not only for the Women in Judaism connection but for the well-being of CBI as well as a very focused outreach program. In the past, outreach has benefited Catalyst, victims of the Oakland Hills fires, and the synagogues in Sacramento following the fire bombing, among others. Haverot has aided the CBI Youth when they took a tour of Israel and has donated monies to the Religious School program and teachers. Regularly the women of Haverot present a Kiddish cup to all Bar or Bat Mitzvah youth.
Initially Haverot’s fund-raising bought items for the kitchen and other items within the synagogue. Later fund-raising targeted specific projects, i.e. remodeling the kitchen. Haverot also made and donated the Tree of Life quilt to be used as an ongoing fund-raiser for CBI by selling leaves to honor or remember someone.
During the early 1990’s the three room classroom building was constructed with funds from donations. Until then, classes were held in small rooms in the synagogue, including the library. Following this construction, David Halimi and Jess and Rene Price built the planter boxes outside the classrooms.