History Congregation Etz Chaim
Jews have lived in Merced since before the turn of the 20th century and a number formed a lay community early on with local businessman George Wolf leading services. When Castle Air Force Base was open, the Jews of Merced worked with the Base to develop a shared community, and Rabbi David Greenberg and Cantor Michael Loring of Temple Beth Israel in Fresno served as its spiritual leaders when time permitted.
In 1976, several young mothers who met each other during services at the Base, decided to embark upon a religious school for their children. The school was held in a classroom at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and commitment to develop a congregation in Merced began to take root.
In September 1977, the group of young parents publicized and held a Chicken Soup Social in hopes that people would come out and express interest in forming a congregation. The party was well attended, and plans began moving forward rapidly.
Being novices at things organizational, and with “members” representing a wide range of Jewish practice and experience, we appealed to the various Movements for assistance and were frustrated by the lack of response by most. The URJ (then the UAHC), in start contrast, greeted us with open arms and encouragement. Rabbi Morrie Hershman, then UAHC Director for our region, came to one of our very first board meetings, provided all the assistance we needed, and basically adopted us as one of his own, attending every Bar and Bat Mitzvah and at least one weekend a year until he retired!
By 1978 we were firmly ensconced as an official congregation, with a formal (well, never very formal) Board and our very first student Rabbi, Reuven Firestone, now one of the most outstanding professors at Hebrew Union College.
We have, in fact, launched the careers of many, many rabbis over the years and continue to do so. Still a small, vibrant, congregation, we now own a piece of property at the corner of Farmland and G Streets which we hope some day to develop. Merced has grown tremendously over the years, though the number of Jews moving to the area has only kept pace with the numbers moving out. With the implementation of UC Merced, however, we know that Congregation Etz Chaim, our Merced Tree of Jewish Life that we have loved and nurtured for 30 years, will begin to bear beautiful, vibrant fruit.
We hope you consider joining us in our quest!