Born February 15th, 1929 into a family of nine in Columbus Ohio, my grandmother, Shirley Berman, was influenced by Judaism starting at a very young age. The sixth of the family’s seven children, her family practiced what she called, “close to Orthodox” Judaism; they kept kosher and observed all holidays. Shirley began attending Hebrew school at the age of seven every day of the week except Friday and Saturday. She recalled her Hebrew school teacher, Mr. Metchnik, and how his daily sessions were what initially instilled in Shirley her love for teaching Hebrew. Appropriately, she began teaching Hebrew at age seventeen and would continue to do so until her mid-eighties. Shirley said, “Being a Hebrew teacher was the best experience of my life,” and she loves seeing any of the literally hundreds of students she has taught and catching up with them. (She would also tutor me and my brother for our B’nai Mitzvah.)
Shortly after attending four years of college at Ohio State University where she majored in Journalism, Shirley met her future husband, Melvin Berman, at the local JCC. Speaking about Melvin, Shirley said, “My mother thought Melvin was almost Christian because he wasn’t Orthodox.” Nevertheless, a mere nine months later they had married, in December of 1952. During that year, Shirley and Melvin moved from Ohio and into 794 Del Ganado Road in Terra Linda, where Shirley still lives today.
“We used to have Shabbat services at the JCC,” Shirley explained, “Until one day when we were walking home from services, Melvin suggested we start our own temple with our friends.” Shirley was surprised by this notion because of Melvin’s lack of religious devotion. And so it began, organizing what is today Rodef Sholom. With the help of friends, Shirley and Melvin began looking for donors and asking countless people for money, while they pitched in five hundred dollars. “Five hundred dollars was a lot for us back then, so we were doing everything we could to come up with enough money.” Shirley and the other founding members of the temple decided that Reform Judaism was their best option because it could include many different people and allow them to practice religion at their own pace. Rodef Sholom’s first location was in downtown San Rafael. There Shirley resumed her role as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor. She also became a proud mother of three by 1965. Unfortunately, Melvin passed away on August 25th, 1995.
For the past 60 years or so, Shirley Berman has had the unique opportunity to witness the immense change and growth that Rodef Sholom has gone through. Besides many more congregants, Rodef Sholom “offers much more in the way of social services,” and “is more inclusive of different aspects of Reform Judaism” than it was when it started, according to Shirley. She is very proud of the way Rodef Sholom has turned out.
Nowadays, things are slower for my grandma because of her dementia. Although Judaism doesn’t play as large a role in her life as it did years ago, I can confidently say she is a different person when saying prayers, celebrating a Jewish holiday, or attending services. She is more vibrant, upbeat, confident and generally energetic when at the synagogue or engaging in conversations about Hebrew and Judaism.
Today, she still lives at 794 Del Ganado Road with her son Josh. She enjoys frequent visits from her other children, Jon and Joanna, and loves to share stories because it “exercises my memory.” We’re grateful that she has shared them with us.