Sonoma Valley Jews take steps to create a new congregation

When Joan Doris placed a want ad in the Sonoma Index-Tribune, inviting other Jews in the area to meet and talk about forming a congregation, a San Francisco rabbi gave her some advice.

He told her to hold the meeting in a too-small room.

She dutifully reserved a modest one in the First Congregation Church of Sonoma. "I had only truly hoped for 30," she said.

But 66 people showed up.

"As people kept coming in and we kept bringing in more and more chairs, it created such an energy, such an excitement, such a buzz — the room just kept filling," Doris recalled. "It was just really, really exciting."

An equipment rental agent and mother of two young children, Doris said her brainstorm came after she visited first one synagogue in Cotati and then two in Santa Rosa. She chose one of the Santa Rosa synagogues but, even so, "got tired of schlepping my kids 45 minutes" to Friday night services.

She put the ad in the newspaper last fall, asking Sonomans interested in forming a structured Jewish community to attend a meeting.

The get-together was, by Jewish standards, "brief — about two hours," she said.

That was long enough for members of the diverse group to discover they had much in common, and that together they could raise the momentum to start a brand-new Reform congregation.

Retired Middle Eastern studies Professor Dick Newman attended the meeting. Unlike Doris, Newman grew up in a Conservative family.

But like Doris, Newman and his wife had attended various North Bay Reform congregations in hopes of finding the right one for them.

They had also recently attended an interfaith community seder hosted by Sonoma's First Congregational Church. The event drew 150 people.

Seder guests "began thinking, `What if, what if, what if,'" Newman recalled.

Soon afterward, Doris' ad appeared in the Index-Tribune. Newman eagerly attended that first meeting and emerged from it having agreed to chair the new group's steering committee.

"I told him, `My upbringing is not sufficient for me to lead a religious group,'" Doris said. "Dick has done an incredible job."

Of the still-nameless 220-member congregation, many are interfaith couples like Doris and her husband. Some are octogenarians while others are young parents and parents-to-be who want their children to have a Jewish education.

Many congregants strive to meld their strong sense of Jewish commitment with community activism — hoping the group can aid local homeless people, for instance.

For Newman, who once chaired the social action committee for Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, such activism "is part of religion," he said.

He quoted a fellow congregant, a woman overjoyed at finding a hometown congregation, who said, "When I go to Santa Rosa, it's a good service. But when I leave, I leave the community."

"We have two tenets," Newman said. "One is to be inclusive. The other is to try to move slowly, and that isn't so easy."

Recent events included a November Shabbat service and a December Chanukah party. So far, the group vibrates with the kind of phone-tree fervor that ensures deadline commitments and lots of rich ideas.

Some are eager to find a building the group can call its own. Others long for Torah study or Yiddish classes. A lecture series and book discussion group are in the works.

The group's Yom Kippur services, which Doris said "were pulled together in a month," were held at First Congregational Church and drew a crowd of over 130. Rosh Hashanah services, which drew 115, featured the work of cantor Rita Glassman, formerly of Rodef Sholom.

The ever-expanding group also gathered to build a sukkah, a harvest hut for the Sukkot holiday, on a Sonoma lawn.

"We're going to find out through our Shabbat series how committed people are to attending religious services," Newman said.

Doris believes the numbers will grow. "We'll find a larger population in the better weather. A lot of people have second homes here."

The steering committee is developing a questionnaire to tap members' sense of what a Jewish identity will mean in the context of the new congregation.

"My gut level sense is that our congregation might be more casual, more flexible" than some, Newman said. "There's room in modern Judaism to be flexible."

"We're determined to move slowly," Doris said. "We need to go with the momentum that's building, yet take it slow enough so we don't crash and burn."