“It is a magical year,” proclaims the invitation to the 3rd annual Beth Jacob Gala Dinner, which is being held on Sunday, January 23. The gala dinner is a “celebratory fundraiser to enable Beth Jacob to continue its vital programs and activities,” and each the honoree is effusive about the excitement surrounding the Orthodox congregation in Irvine.
For Michael Sass, former president of Beth Jacob, who is being honored along with his wife, Symone, the acquisition of the building next to the congregation’s current building was “miraculous” and the “timing phenomenal.” He added, “The community beyond the Beth Jacob membership made it happen. People see the Orthodox community as a vital part of the overall Jewish community. The shul offers more than a place to go to services. Our chesed (“kindness” in Hebrew) group goes way beyond Beth Jacob and touches people on a regular basis. This gala celebration and our improved facility will help us to do more chesed.”
Now, Sass explained, there can be more for both congregants and community members, thanks to the expansion of the facility. The “broader vision” of a new sanctuary, social hall and other upgrades “will help us come together as a community,” he said.
According to Symone Sass, who anticipates playing a vital role in launching a Jewish Montessori preschool at Beth Jacob in the fall, “The beauty of the Beth Jacob community is that the broader community participates in our activities. There’s more crossover between denominations than in other cities, which promotes more togetherness and unity.”
The Sasses, who have been at Beth Jacob for 16 years, have three children – Justin, 16, Rachel, 14, and Ariel, 9. While Michael, who is vice president of a technology group for dental products, grew up Modern Orthodox in Los Angeles, Symone, a social worker, came from a limited Jewish background in Coronado. They appreciate the diversity and inclusiveness of the congregation, which Michael describes as “a mix of people who are really religious and people who want to learn.” Symone called “the unique aspect of Beth Jacob” the fact that the Sephardic and Ashkenazic minyanim have their own services but come together for Kiddush and other events, adding, “And we’re all growing by leaps and bounds.”
To Ilan Wolf, who is receiving the Young Leadership Award with his wife, Keren, “The Beth Jacob community is very special. It’s a family, not just individual members. We’ve loved, hurt, laughed and cried together. A lot of time you belong to a shul and stay with your friends. Here you love to schmooze with everybody.”
Wolf serves as the gabbai (the assistant who helps to keep services on track and congregants on the right page), helps maintain the eruv (the boundary wherein people can carry things on Shabbat), volunteers with youth programs, helps with the hospital visitation program and served on the synagogue’s board. His grandparents were founders of Temple Beth Emet, and he has watched Orange County’s Jewish community grow.
Added Keren, who coordinates meals on wheels and helps with the hospital visitation program for Beth Jacob, “The congregation is warm and welcoming to people of all types of backgrounds, accepting of anyone who comes through the door and there to help when you need it. Having the new building will allow the congregation to go deeper into the work we’re already doing.”
Keren, a Minneapolis native who met Ilan while she was studying at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and he was at Cal State Northridge, is dean of students for the upper school at Tarbut V’Torah. The Wolfs, who have two sons, Jake, 9, and Sammy, 6, joined Beth Jacob in 1999.
Ruth Illman, who is the first winner of the Adina Kaufman Eishet Chayil Award, specializes in fundraising efforts for Beth Jacob. Illman, who is “very proud” to get this first-time award, “because Adina Kaufman was so special to the congregation,” used to run Beth Jacob’s golf tournament. Currently, she calls advertisers for the annual calendar and helps to put it together, solicits advertising for the gala dinner and works on the journal, organizes drivers and routes for Shalach Manot basket deliveries at Purim and helps with the congregation’s address book.
Arriving in Irvine from South Africa in 1985 with their two children who were then teenagers, Ruth and Selwyn Illman joined Beth Jacob in 1987. Today, both children are married, and Ruth is “busy with her three grandchildren” and her mother, all of whom are in Orange County.
“We have to do what we can to keep Jewish institutions going,” said Illman, who also volunteers for Mitzvah Mavens and Families Forward. “In difficult times we have to try harder to make things work.”
All of the honorees are in agreement about three key things: they are proud to be part of Beth Jacob, they are proud to be honored with such distinguished people and they believe that Rabbi Yisroel Ciner and his wife, Natalie, have brought a new dimension to the congregation. Rabbi Ciner became the spiritual leader of the congregation in 2008.
“Rabbi Ciner is the epitome of a mensch, a rabbi’s rabbi who gives the community so much and pays attention to everybody’s needs and wants,” said Ilan Wolf. “He meets you where you are in life and shows such sensitivity. When my son, Sammy started wearing a kippah, he couldn’t wait to run to shul to show Rabbi Ciner.”
“Our community is in a good place, and I’m convinced that it couldn’t have happened without the Ciners,” Michael Sass concluded. “They created a united community, and now we have an opportunity to make it grow even more.”