Growing 2-year-old Ohr Emet stresses family spirit

It's Sunday morning at Congregation Ohr Emet in Walnut Creek, and kids are streaming into religious school.

So are their parents, who will be joining them for a half-hour prayer service.

At this Conservative congregation, the newest on the roster of East Bay synagogues, family education is key.

"Children internalize Jewish values much more readily if the parents model those values," says Shira Lubliner, the budding synagogue's education director. "We have to provide context for the parents to model values, since many of them don't have the background on their own."

Not only do parents attend Sunday-morning services with their kids, the synagogue also offers adult education classes during Sunday-school hours. Much emphasis is placed on what people can learn from Judaism — and from each other.

"We wanted a place where people could teach others, where Judaism would not be foreign and where people would feel comfortable to come in and ask questions," says Walnut Creek resident Dr. Larry Wanetick, a member of Ohr Emet since its inception.

When the synagogue was founded nearly two years ago by a group of breakaway members from Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Shalom, it had 10 families. Now that number has grown to about 60. Several of those families were introduced to the synagogue through its unusual open-door religious-school policy; children who are non-members can still attend the school, which operates three days a week.

Currently, about one-third of the approximately 80 religious-school students are non-members.

"We feel like no Jewish child in our area should have to go without a Jewish education," says Lane Yago, one of the synagogue's original members. "That's a very basic philosophy."

Temporarily located at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, the synagogue does not yet have a full-time rabbi. However, Rabbi Jay Krause — a former assistant director at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco — does come once a month for Friday-night and Saturday-morning Shabbat services, High Holy Days and life-cycle events. In keeping with Ohr Emet's theme of communal learning, members are encouraged to lead prayers and discussions.

"We have people who are not religious at all. We have people who are very learned," Wanetick says. "We really try to emphasize the family spirit of the community."