About 25 years ago, Michael Schneider was sitting at lunch when he began drawing on a napkin. It was for a building that he saw Congregation B’nai Israel in. At the time, the community was in a rented warehouse with no windows, up against the 5 freeway, known as the B-Street Warehouse.
That napkin has since become legend, and now 25 years after the land for the congregation was put up on the market, the eight men responsible for it all – known to the congregation as the Genesis Committee – will be honored at CBI’s annual gala on April 3.
“They really are an all-star team of Jewishly-committed, professionally- competent men who respect each other and remain friends,” Rabbi Elie Spitz said. The eight men on the Genesis Committee — Andy Bernstein, Mark Cross, Hal Hurwitz, Ron Morrison, Schneider, Bob Sklar, Ralph Stern and Jay Witzling – came together to find the land for CBI and create the campus that the congregation knows today.
“When I came, they were the pillars of the community,” Spitz said. He added that Ralph Stern is a founder of CBI and chair of the JCC Campus project, former head of Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, and “this is the first time he has agreed to be honored in our community.” Mark Cross worked on the JCC campus project. Bob Sklar is founding president of Congregation B’nai Israel. Hal Hurwitz is immediate past president of CBI and lay cantor. Michael Schneider is a transportation planner and president when the committee formed. Andrew Bernstein and Ron Morrison are both prominent lawyers. Jay Witzling is “literally a rocket scientist,” who chaired the Genesis Committee.
“They have a great story to tell of formulating a vision and with skill and perseverance seeing it to completion,” Rabbi Spitz said.
Around the time that the Genesis Committee was looking for a new home, there was only a small group of families that made up the congregation and a limited amount of staff. They needed room to grow beyond the religious school and offer more to the community.
According to Spitz, who came to the congregation in 1988, the committee was fundraising and negotiating with the Irvine Company for a church-designated piece of land in the Tustin Ranch master plan. The following year, the committee finally closed escrow on the three-acre parcel.
Each man in the Genesis Committee had his own special place in the group. Some served as leaders while others brought the expertise from their respective fields, whether it was construction, finance or legal. Together, they were able to raise the money to purchase the land and design the three phases of the campus that would make up their spiritual home.
Cross would eventually take the design on Schneider’s napkin and create a blueprint for phase one of the campus, which was a multipurpose room. Once it was completed, Spitz and the congregation walked their torahs to the new location, which was two miles away from the warehouse they had previously been in.
“It was pretty rare to be at the right time and place to build a synagogue from scratch, and to build a community in our lifetime,” he said.
Since then, phase two, which was the Sharon Sanctuary, was completed in 1999, followed by the Family Life Center, which was completed in 2004. One of the most important things the Genesis Committee set out to do was to make sure that there was no sense of financial pressure on the board during the construction process; before each phase of the campus was started, there had to be enough money raised to get through the building process.
In addition to their work building out the campus, the Genesis Committee also achieved a rare feat for congregations in Orange County: It no longer has a mortgage that has to be paid off.
Today, CBI has gone from a small group of families to a large congregation with a preschool, youth group, rabbinic intern and full-time religious school director. According to Rabbi Spitz, the community is close to 500 families now, whereas before it was 125 families.
Although the building is done and there is no more room on the campus to spread out, Spitz sees that the future will hold plenty of new programming for the congregation, including a Friday night dinner initiative.
“There is always more programming to do with the facilities that we have. There is always a way to do what we do better, so we are always looking forward to be better, to meet people’s needs creatively and completely,” he said.
In the spirit of the Genesis Committee – whose members refused to be honored separately – the gala will take place at CBI.
“The choice of doing it on site is part is because we are celebrating the achievement of the site,” Spitz said.
“The Gala evening will be far more elegant and significant in attendance than any synagogue dinner we have ever hosted. We will hold the dinner in a tent alongside the building in order to accommodate many guests and to showcase the Committee’s achievement, followed by a festive dance in our social hall.”
According to Spitz, there are 39 sponsoring families listed on the invitation alone. Although he isn’t sure what the next 25 years will hold for the congregation, he knows how far they have come in building their new home.
“It takes a vision and it takes solid leaders,” he said. “It took a collection of congregants to actualize a vision, to allow a community to feel like they were involved in building a community.”