The first public meeting to explore the idea of a forming a Jewish congregation was held on June 8, 1968, in a room at Security Pacific Bank. Nick and Erika Schwartz were among the few founders who joined forces and efforts to form Temple Beth Sholom, now Congregation Beth Shalom. Over the years, Nick and Erika served as Men’s Club and Sisterhood presidents, respectively. Both served many years on the Board of Directors – Nick as President and Erika as Treasurer. They have both been quite active in all aspects of the congregation as well as within the Corona community.
The first 18 years:
“To be a practicing Jew in Corona is something like being a rancher in Manhattan.” As the managing editor of Corona’s main newspaper continued to write in 1981. “…not outcasts, certainly, but still an uncommon environment.”
This situation didn’t phase a handful of Coronans who, way back in May of 1968 felt it was time to be uncommon together. Jerry and Sylvia Tarshis, Nick and Erika Schwartz, and Stuart and Joan Halperin were done with traveling to other cities for their spiritual and educational needs. By mail they contacted Jewish acquaintances and those listed in the phone book with Jewish sounding names, stating their intention to form a Conservative congregation in affiliation with United Synagogue of America.
Backing up some, thanks go to Jerry Tarshis’ dogmatic optimism. When Jerry and his family first moved to Corona from Chicago 34 years ago, one of the first things he did was to go to a Jewish-sounding furniture store, introduce himself to the owner, Nick Schwartz, and then immediately inquire as to where one buys kosher meat in this town.
Within three years, Jerry was insisting to Nick and Erika Schwartz that if only 10 families were wiling to form a congregation; it would be worth the effort. (Erika was all for it. Nick, a former president of Corona’s Optimist Club, was hard-pressed to believe it could happen.) They nevertheless joined forces along with the Halperins and conducted a public meeting to explore the idea on June8, 1968, in a room at Security Pacific Bank.
Nearly 70 people attended. The excitement in the air was almost palpable but as what usually happens in a group of strong-willed, verbal people there came an impasse. Jerry pushed through it by stating, “Give us a month and we’ll have Shabbat services. I don’t know who will conduct or where it will be. If you’re interested leave your name; if God wants it, a temple will be in Corona.”
A month latter a triumphant group of people worshiped at Southwest Savings and Loan meeting room with Rabbi Marcus Simmons, father of Grace Fax, who ignored his retirement to volunteer as our first spiritual guide.
After a few articles and probes, St. Edwards Catholic Church offered us a more convenient place to grow in one of their classrooms. Especially for those of us who lived for years in Corona as the “uncommon” element surrounded by the town’s nisht Yiddishe perceptions and traditions, our first HIgh Hoy Day services, held at St. Edwards, were an absolute joy and treasure.
In spring of ‘69, Obby Agins found a building and property which was previously the Free Methodist Church, located at 9th and Sheridan. The next site took great courage and commitment; the handful of governing families took the plunge and purchased it in August, 1969, just one year after the first Shabbat Services.
With the speed and spirit of an Amish barn-raising the families went to work. The newly formed Sisterhood koshered the kitchen, made curtains, decorations, created a giftshop, and maintained the social hall to balibatishe standards. The men held a painting/fixing party where witty Sol Karl handed out tools, Nick told his latest jokes, George Fox (who became our second president) painted himself in a corner, Stuart creatively supervised, etc., etc., etc., and then they rested – except for Obby. He had unceremoniously become our on-call plumber.
Meanwhile necessary religious articles were donated (many handmade) from the Eternal Light, Torah and Ark to the pews and their cushions. We finished in time for our second High Holy Day services where we maintained the unbelievable awe and joy felt the year before, this time with a synagogue and a name.
That year, members were so bound to each other that it was only natural to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. Quality socializing has continued throughout the 18 years; congregational Shabbat dinners; fundraising rummage sales, a swim party and kosher luau; visits to instituationalized sick and elderly; and educationaly events such as Jewish Book Review Month, University of Judaism Lecture Series, Bible Study, Youth Groups, the ongoing Chavarium (study of ethics) with Orange County Chabad; Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, a wedding, a bris, and baby namings.
The most unusual aspect of this congregation has been our nearly constant rabbi-less status and as such, our reliance on each other’s talents and time… not only to administrate a complex organization, but also to distribute the role of a rabbi – to organize and conduct group worship, education and celebrations while remaining sensitive to the changing needs of all congregants.
Roles have evolved. Henri Sinasohn had been a lay leader of worship at March Air Force Base. After Rabbi Simmons soon went back into retirement, Henri led services while other members contributed readings and D’var Torah interpretations. Henri’s love for smirres, stories and Jewish learning have made him a colorful facilitator. The quality of education, intellect and diversited amongst the rest of the congregants completes the picture.
Each Yom Kippur begins with Stuart Halperin’s deep rendition of the Kol Nidre, his powerful, trained voice setting the ideal mood for the holiest day of the year. Shelly Razin, patiently and lovingly reads the Maftir each year. Each month Moshe Eisen is the Ba’al Torah (Steve Greenspan, alternate) and each week the children sing the Kiddish. . . there seem to be as many children as adults – a beautiful sign of growth for the temple.
Whenever there is a need for it, our Hebrew and Sunday schools are in operation. Noga Peles was our first Hebrew teacher in 1968 and Tali Wallach was the next teacher. Sunday school first opened its doors in 1971 with teachers Barbara Chandler, Sheila Lujan had fifteen 4 to 6 year olds under her supervision. They’ve learned prayers, decorated the Sukkot, presented a Hanukkah play, given a Purim party and model Sedar. With popsicle sticks they’ve designed their idea of the temple’s future building.
The next 12 years:
For our High Holy Day services we hired “Cantor” Jeff Schwimmer to lead. From the first day we met him he was like family and continued to be our Cantor for special occasions. Lee Lewis chaired a wonderful Break-the-fast, with the baton passed to Karen Spiegel. Everyone looked forward the incredible spread we enjoy after a day of fasting.
In an effort to progress forward, five families (true angels) of our congregation pledged to finance two years of a rabbi’s salary. The search committee forged forward and with about 20 families, we hired a full time rabbi. Rabbi Steve Kaplan came from Florida. With the temple offering a full time rabbi, our membership began to grow.
During this period of time, two of our spiritual leaders took ill and passed on, Moshe Eisen and Henri Sinasohn. Their memories will always be kept close to our hearts as they constantly gave to our congregation. Our children have fond memories of “Rabbi Henri”. After 4 years, Rabbi Kaplan left to find full time work outside of California. The search committee again began their looking.
Rabbi Steve Schatz, from Fountain Valley, CA accepted our offer to join our synagogue as the Rabbi. He increased participation in activities for our members. This includes adult education; weekly assemblies for our children in religious school, community affairs (Chamber of Commerce activities as well as involvement in the Interfaith Association). Rabbi J.B Sacks join us for the next 6 years until his departure in 2008.
Our congregation then faced many of the same challenges that the early years did – including those thoughts about the termites. An active building committee was formulated with hopes to enjoy the new facility by the High Holy Days 2000. However that did not happen. Securing property in the beautiful south Corona area did. The Board sold the building at 9th Street and Sheridan in 2000 to acquire 2.2 acres of land in South Corona. The new facility opened on April 5, 2009 on California Ave in South Corona.
Memberships in the early days were compiled of Holocaust survivors. Today, the mix is smaller, as many survivors are aged or deceased. The second and third generations of survivors pledge to continue to educate the community to protect and ensure history does not repeat itself.
However with the downturn of the economy in 2009-2012 time frame it was necessary to give up the building on California Ave. and adjust to the economic conditions of the times without stressing the congregation with financial burden.
We currently have a long lease at 500 Harrington St. Suite A1 & A2 , in Corona of River and Cota Sts. With about 4400 square feet, this serves the congregation very well and within our budget.
Today, Congregation Beth Shalom thrives with weekly Friday evening services, occasional Shabbat morning services and a full service Religious School for our youth.
Under the direction of Cantor Bruce Shapiro, the congregation is open to Jewish families who seek to learn more. We have an active Youth Group and a membership that is prepared for explosive growth. Some of the names have changed, yet the same intensity of Jewish pride is within.