In 1946, approximately 2,000 Jewish families lived in the San Fernando Valley. The region was booming, as GIs who had trained here for service in World War II moved their families to this sunny land of orange and peach groves.
Mr. and Mrs. Bert Hillison ran an ad in the Valley Times asking for persons interested in starting a Reform congregation. Thirteen families responded and met in the Hillisons’ home. With the help of Rabbi Alfred Wolf, the West Coast director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC — now the Union for Reform Judaism), Temple Beth Hillel, named after the rabbinic sage, was born.
The Temple’s charter was signed on December 11, 1946, and its first Friday Shabbat service was held nine days later at St. Michael’s Church in North Hollywood. Twenty-seven families were in attendance.
By the spring of 1947, the congregation had grown to 40 families. With a subsidy from the UAHC, the congregation engaged Rabbi Joseph Henry Gumbiner as its first full-time spiritual leader. Services and other programs were held at the McKinley Home for Boys at Woodman and Riverside Drive, now the location of the Fashion Square Mall.
In 1948, the congregation purchased the land and little house at 12326 Riverside Drive and turned it into a house of prayer. We built the first classroom building on the property in 1950, which is still used today as our nursery school.
In 1949, Rabbi Morton A. Bauman was engaged to be our spiritual leader when Rabbi Gumbiner left to become the Director of Hillel at Yale University.
The congregation grew rapidly throughout the 1950s, expanding to 900 families with almost 1500 students in the nursery and religious schools. Our cantor led adult and children’s choirs; Brotherhood, Sisterhood, couples, singles and youth group programs were formed.
The new main sanctuary building was built in 1955-56, and plans included the three-story school wing, added in 1963.
In 1959, Cantor Samuel W. Brown brought his love of Judaism and Jewish song to Temple Beth Hillel. With his expressive baritone voice, he led the congregation in prayer as well as directing our adult and children’s choirs until his retirement in 1990.
Growth continued through the 1960s and 70s. We celebrated our 25th anniversary on December 11, 1971, by dedicating a new Activities Building (today called the Feldman-Horn Mercaz.)
On July 1, 1973, Rabbi James Lee Kaufman, who grew up in the temple community, joined us as Assistant Rabbi. When Rabbi Bauman retired in 1977, Rabbi Kaufman stepped into the role of Senior Rabbi.
Many major programs, still popular today, were begun in the 1980s: Seder in the Desert (1979), Community Counseling Center (1983), the Moses Program for Jews with developmental disabilities (1983), and the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry (1983).
The Temple Beth Hillel Elementary School, standing on the shoulders of our long-established preschool, welcomed its first students in 1994.
In 1994, Cantor Alan Weiner joined our clergy. Until his retirement in 2008, he helped hundreds of students prepare for bar and bat mitzvah and conducted the synagogue choirs and musicians.
Cantor Weiner’s compositions and arrangements are used in synagogues around the country. His song “Make a Noise,” written for TBH, is now included in the Reform movement’s Social Action Songbook.
In 2003, Rabbi Sarah Rene Hronsky joined Temple Beth Hillel as Assistant Rabbi, becoming Senior Rabbi upon Rabbi Kaufman’s retirement in 2010. Rabbi Hronsky has presided over a $3.5 million renovation of our campus and the continued success of our programs.
Temple Beth Hillel is exceptional in that it has had only four Senior Rabbis in its 70-year history: Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner (1947-1949), Rabbi Morton Bauman (1949-1977), Rabbi James Kaufman (1977-2010), and Rabbi Sarah Hronsky (2010-present.) It is this stability and strength that has attracted families to our community and schools, and which ensures Temple Beth Hillel’s success into the future.