Stretching from California's fertile Central Valley to the towering trees of Yosemite, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties aren't exactly the desert. But since neither county has a synagogue, Jews can often feel isolated. The nearest regular synagogue is Temple Israel in Stockton, and the nearest one beyond that is in Sacramento.
But organizers of the Motherlode Jewish Community, which takes its name from the region's Gold Rush days, discovered that if they offered any kind of religious service, even just a chat group for the High Holy Days, people would come. A year ago, the lay-led group had up to 15 active families. Now, with 52 families and a lay leader, the congregation is filing for nonprofit status. The next step is an events center and a synagogue.
"There are more Jewish people [in the counties] than are involved with us," said Daniel Jobrack, an unpaid lay leader from Valley Springs who runs the services. He earns his living in a cannery. "There are probably 150 [Jewish] families out here. Many just don't know we're here."
He speculated that perhaps some simply haven't looked for the fledgling congregation. Many who have sought religious involvement, however, have only found the Jews for Jesus, who advertise heavily throughout the area, he said. For many who have tried Jews for Jesus, said Jobrack, "It's left a bad taste," and they've become even more isolated as Jews.
"There are a lot [of Jews] who don't claim their identity," said Richard Merrittstein-Timmins of Groveland, who is president of the chavurah (informal congregation). "A lot of Jewish mishpoche will come out of the woodwork when we announce the center."
The events center is still in the planning stages, however. Not quite a synagogue, the Motherlode Jewish Community is mainly an educational cooperative, with three religious-school teachers and a fairly loose system for holding services.
The group meets in homes, holding some of the bigger services at the Sonora Inn. Even High Holy Days meetings have been small-scale. For many other occasions, Jobrack himself attends services in Grass Valley, where the congregation is also headed by a lay leader.
At Purim, members of the Motherlode Jewish Community brought their children to the festival at Temple Israel in Stockton. Many of the children had never seen a synagogue or a Torah scroll, said Stockton Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff.
Jobrack's goal is to make these young people more knowledgeable about Judaism. He is currently preparing five b'nai mitzvah students. Meanwhile, the High Holy Days program is incorporating more rituals. And Merrittstein-Timmins got the local newspaper, the Sonora Democrat, to change the name of its "Church Page" to "Religious Page."
The next step is anybody's guess. For Jews, these two counties, a mere two-hour drive from San Francisco, are undiscovered country — despite the large number of Jews who descended on the region during Gold Rush days.
Elizabeth Santomeier, executive secretary of Stockton's Temple Israel, said she couldn't estimate the hidden Jewish population in her own county of San Joaquin, let alone in the Motherlode Jewish Community's unexplored counties.
"We wish them luck," she said of the new congregation.
Gwasdoff would only speculate: "Thar's Jews in them hills."