With little agreement on Israel; Jewish Congregation of the Valley turns 10

by Daniel Freed

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley, and members of the community-based organization are preparing to celebrate the event this fall.

Over these 10 years the congregation, which started out as eight West Marin Jews gathering one Friday night in a Woodacre home, has grown into a true community. While the congregation’s members originally got together in part to avoid driving over the hill to attend Jewish services, their gatherings now attract Jews from over the hill to services in the Valley.

Its members say that the congregation’s appeal is that for 10 years they have listened to new ideas about worship and continued to explore what makes a Jewish community thrive. This forward thinking has kept the community strong, and recently has allowed for lively debate over the conflict in the Middle East. However, the spirited discourse on current events has not come as much of a surprise to those involved. As one congregation member said this week, it can be attributed to simple math: “Three Jews; five opinions.”

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, large waves of Jews from villages and cities across Europe left their homelands to seek a better life in America. Many of them settled in Jewish enclaves in large cities along the Eastern seaboard — New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and others.

New opportunities for Jews

In these large communities, opportunities for religious and economic freedom existed which Jews lacked in Europe, and many Old World traditions hung on. Many immigrants, for instance, discussed and debated around the Sabbath –or Shabbat– dinner table or in the streetside markets in their native Yiddish tongue. Their children listened and often learned the language, a mixture of German and Hebrew, but together they spoke of baseball and America in their own new language — English.

Many of these children –first- and second-generation Americans– eventually spread out across America, some eventually settling in the towns of West Marin.

West Marin offered the newcomers alternative spiritual opportunities and an escape from what many this week said they saw as a distant, often patriarchal religious world of large synagogues and congregations. But still, in their new home, Jews from the San Geronimo Valley and the coastal towns of West Marin missed the camaraderie, culture, and closeness of the Jewish community.

Group formed in West Marin

In early 1992, some West Marin Jews came across an announcement in Stone Soup, the newsletter of the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center. Written by Suzanne Sadowsky, a native of Brooklyn, the announcement said, “A Jewish congregation is forming in the San Geronimo Valley to celebrate Jewish holidays and Shabbats. Other activities might include Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes, adult education, a community seder, etc.”

Sadowsky, said this week that in response to the ad, eight people showed up at her house for a Friday night potluck dinner and informal Shabbat service on Feb. 28, 1992. Those eight people grew into the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley. The group now has 60 members and a mailing list which goes out to Jews all over the Bay Area.

“I thought it would be a good idea to start a Jewish congregation in the Valley,” Sadowsky explained. “I had friends here who were going over the hill to congregations in East Marin which offered services and activities. But it was a long distance to go, and it was not reflective of the community that we have here in West Marin.”

Congregation evolving

Though they still meet in members’ homes for Shabbat dinners, the congregation also holds larger events at the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center. Members this week said they appreciate that their group has avoided becoming too attached to one particular rabbi or branch of Judaism. Many noted that they enjoy the familial nature of a congregation that has held worship services in places such as Roy’s Redwoods and has routinely welcomed mixed Jewish-Christian couples.

“The services at the congregation just feel right to me,” said congregation member and Dance Palace founder Carol Friedman of Point Reyes Station. “The services are casual and comfortable and it’s comfortable to have kids there. No one is terribly dogmatic and there’s always lots of singing and participation.”

The congregation also holds its own religious school classes, and hosts celebrations for most major Jewish holidays. Besides the High Holy Day observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the fall, the congregation often sees a large turnout for their springtime Passover Seder, a traditional holiday meal.

Passover seder tainted by terrorist bombing

Last month, more than 100 people showed up at the Valley Cultural Center to tell the Biblical story of Moses leading the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in Israel. While West Marin Jews met to sing and celebrate, Jews thousands of miles away had their Passover celebration cut short when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 27 Israelis during an attack in Netanya, Israel.

Over the past few months, as Arab-Israeli tensions have escalated in the Middle East, members of the congregation have spent much of their time together discussing the conflict. The conversations typically debate how American Jews can react in the wake of suicide attacks and Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Though all congregation members who spoke with The Light this week said that they had strong opinions on recent conflicts in Israel and the West Bank, a spot check of the members this week suggested they do not always see eye to eye on the reasons the fighting has escalated or how it might be abated.

Members speak out

One congregation member, Dave Knepler of Woodacre, told The Light that over the past few months he has shifted his stance from dove to hawk. Since the Passover bombing, he has seen himself leaning more toward a strong pro-Israeli view, he said.

“When we do the seder, it’s something that most Jews across the world are celebrating also. There you are, on that evening, with your loved ones, and you realize it’s the luck of the draw as to where something happens. The suicide bombers showed that they have no respect for other religions and that they only are thinking in terms of their own narrow version of what they think their religion should be.”

But fellow congregation member Gershon Mitchel of San Geronimo related current events to the Passover holiday in an entirely different way. “There were people saying that around Passover, our people were acting like Pharaoh,” he said. “It’s against the morals we, as Jews, grew up with — this oppressing of the meek. It appears that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been imbued in the Israeli people.”

However, Knepler said that he thinks the ongoing crackdown by Israeli forces is a necessary evil which is working to slow the pace of Palestinian suicide bombings.

An opposing viewpoint

Founding congregation member Ed Levine of Woodacre voiced another opposing opinion. “There is a perception that when it comes to Israel, all Jews fall in line and speak the same party line,” he said.” “It’s not so. Maybe it used to be so, but not anymore. I’m very disturbed about suicide bombings, but I think what Israel is doing is totally over the top and counter-productive to the peace process.”

When asked if peace is possible, those interviewed by The Light said they believed it is. They noted, however, lasting peace would take an easing of fanatical tensions on both sides, and that it would take a lot of work from the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, and the governments of surrounding Arab countries.

Congregation members acknowledged that in a country where innocent civilians are killed regularly and where religious zealots are strong forces on both sides, the road to peace will not be an easy one.

Levine summed up the problem by asking, “What can be a more difficult thing to solve than people who are on a religious mission?”

—from Point Reyes Light – April 11, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Daniel Freed, Point Reyes Light