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Thursday, August 30, 2012 | return to: supplement, readers' choice awards


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Readers’ Choice: Synagogue Life

by naomi kosman-wiener

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Adult Education

Learning certainly does not stop at adulthood. That is why Jewish organizations throughout the Bay Area are dedicated to providing

education to people of all ages.

While visiting the JCC of San Francisco, you might hear children laughing and playing music in the same hall where their parents are learning Spanish or making ceramics. “We offer adults everything for every interest,” says Jackie Lewis, director of recreation and the adult department. “There are classes going on day and night,” in areas from creative writing to Jewish culture to food and wine. The JCC also runs programs with other agencies, such as classes through City College of San Francisco.

Another S.F. reader favorite is the adult education program at Congregation Sherith Israel, driven entirely by congregants. Judie Wexler, the layperson in charge of the education committee, notes that religious education usually happens in childhood. “As we grow up, we need to learn to rethink what it means to be Jewish from an adult perspective,” she says. “Our adult education program tries to provide a wide range of courses that address this question.”

The adult education program at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley offers a variety of weekly classes, some in collaboration with Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica. And the offerings are constantly changing. “It’s pretty exciting to look at a typical month,” says Rabbi Shalom Bochner, director of life long learning. “We’ve covered Kabbalah, cooking, poetry and science, all in the course of one or two weeks.” In addition, every Shabbat after Kiddush, and two Sundays a month, a host of local and visiting scholars come to discuss a range of topics, and every Wednesday there is a class on Tanach/Bible study.

Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City has an adult education program designed to deepen congregants’ relationship with Judaism. Before every Saturday morning service, for example, they meet to study the week’s parashah, and every Monday they can attend a class on Jewish text and thought. “One of the more transformational classes that happens here is our adult bar or bat mitzvah program,” says Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray. The students meet regularly for two years to study Jewish history and theology, learn how to lead the Torah service and practice chanting their parashah.

Another Peninsula favorite is the adult education program at Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, designed to appeal to different demographics. Some offerings are devoted to Jewish basics, such as reading Hebrew, and others focus on Jewish texts or Israel. An ongoing weekly Parent Education Circle brings congregants together to discuss how to preserve Judaism in the family. In the women’s study group, participants of all ages study text and relate the Torah to their daily lives.

Chabad of Marin in San Rafael is devoted to helping adults apply Jewish lessons to their lives. The main program is the Jewish Learning Institute, in which adults can sign up for three courses per year that explore relevant topics from the perspective of Jewish values. Rabbi Yisrael Rice says he is open to exploring any area of text that people are interested in. “The Torah belongs to every Jewish person; no one has a monopoly on it. Every person has the winning lottery ticket and they just need to come in and claim their prize.”

 

San Francisco

JCC of San Francisco

(415) 292-1200 • http://www.jccsf.org


Congregation Sherith Israel

(415) 346-1720 • http://www.sherithisrael.org

 

East Bay

Congregation Netivot Shalom

(510) 549-9447 • http://www.netivottest.org

 

South Bay/Peninsula

Congregation Beth Jacob

Redwood City

(650) 366-8481 • http://www.bethjacobrwc.org


Congregation Kol Emeth

Palo Alto

(650) 948-7498 • http://www.kolemeth.org

 

North Bay

Chabad of Marin

San Rafael

(415) 492-1666 • http://www.jewishlantern.org

 

Interfaith Program

These days, more and more synagogues are reaching out to welcome and accommodate members who are not Jewish, are new to Judaism, or have non-Jewish family members. The following synagogues were cited by our readers for their strong emphasis on acceptance and learning.

The interfaith program at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco is a core part of the synagogue’s identity, says Lisa Erdberg, interfaith outreach fellow. In addition to offering several workshops about the basics of Judaism, the synagogue has taken big steps to create an inclusive environment. On Yom Kippur morning, Rabbi Lawrence Raphael gives a special blessing to all non-Jewish spouses and partners, and he will perform wedding ceremonies for interfaith couples who promise to maintain a Jewish home. “The core Jewish value of welcoming the stranger and drawing in those who are on the margins underlies and permeates our culture at Sherith Israel,” Erdberg says.

Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont not only tries to build a strong interfaith program inside its congregation, but also outside the synagogue’s walls. It is one of 70 congregations or schools involved in the Oakland Community Organizations, in which the clergy and congregants work side by side with their Muslim and Christian counterparts. Kehilla also has formed an interfaith trio with Montclair Presbyterian Church and the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California to put on programs in the area.

At Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, programs are designed to introduce Jewish values and practices to those exploring Judaism so that all feel comfortable in the synagogue. One support group explores issues interfaith families face, while another looks at issues faced by non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children and parents of intermarried children.

Because 40 percent of the congregants at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael are in interfaith families, the clergy makes sure to include them in all synagogue activities. “We’re proud to have them as part of our community and do everything we can to make them feel welcome,” says Moji Javid Smulewitz, director of Community Connections. Like other Readers’ Choice winners, Rodef Sholom offers different types of learning opportunities, including an Intro to Jewish Life class.

 

San Francisco

Congregation Sherith Israel

(415) 346-1720

www.sherithisrael.org

 

East Bay

Kehilla Community Synagogue

Piedmont

(510) 547-2424

www.kehillasynagogue.org

 

South Bay/Peninsula

Congregation Beth Am

Los Altos Hills

(650) 493-4661

www.betham.org


North Bay

Congregation Rodef Sholom

San Rafael

(415) 479-3441

www.rodefsholom.org

 

Social Action Program

Most Bay Area synagogues embrace the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world through a variety of programs devoted to helping those in need. Readers say these synagogues take that concept to a higher level.

The HaMotzi program at Congregation Sherith Israel was established in 1993 when a former assistant rabbi, Alice Goldfinger, arrived in San Francisco and was appalled by the hunger and homelessness she encountered on the streets. She put out the call for a weekly soup kitchen, and ever since volunteers have met every Sunday to prepare 125 home-cooked meals, which are delivered to two city shelters. “For a lot of people, this is their prayer, their tefillah,” says education director Nancy Sheftel-Gomes. “It’s a thrilling experience.”

At Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, social action is less formal, with congregants setting up homegrown community service projects, such as food drives or trips to food banks and soup kitchens. A boy who was preparing for his bar mitzvah, for example, decided to start a book drive for a library in Africa, with wholehearted support from the congregation. “The emphasis on social action is really in the fuel and blood of the congregation,” says Associate Rabbi Michael Davies.

An emphasis on community service also unites members of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City. They cook and serve meals at the nearby Maple Street Shelter, feed the hungry in partnership with a local church, and provide assistance to people who are ill or grieving. The synagogue also participates in Home & Hope, a county-run shelter and food program. For one week each year, congregants host and feed families at the synagogue. Beth Jacob “tries to remove the stigma from the word ‘homeless’ and stresses that one of the first steps to getting back on your feet is love, welcoming and hospitality,” says Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray.

For 20 years, volunteers at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto have gathered every month to make sandwiches and bagged lunches for those in need. Program coordinator Judi Zeitlin says the group prepares as many as 200 sandwiches per hour, and the volunteers say they feel as if they’ve accomplished something important after every session. “My husband often says that it’s the one day a month where … he knows he’s done something good that day.”

Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael also strives to incorporate social action into its everyday activities. “It’s one of the values that the clergy really teach about and want to be infused into who we are,” says Moji Javid Smulewitz, director of Community Connections. Mitzvah Day, held in October, is the synagogue’s largest event, drawing 500 to 600 congregants who help with some 30 social action projects. This service often inspires more ongoing commitments, including the congregation’s participation in Marin’s Rotating Emergency Shelter Project.

 

San Francisco

Congregation Sherith Israel

(415) 346-1720 • http://www.sherithisrael.org

 

East Bay

Beth Jacob Congregation

Oakland

(510) 482-1147 •www.bethjacoboakland.org

 

South Bay/Peninsula

Congregation Beth Jacob

Redwood City

(650) 366-8481 • http://www.bethjacobrwc.org

 

Congregation Kol Emeth

Palo Alto

(650) 948-7498

www.kolemeth.org

 

North Bay

Congregation Rodef Sholom

San Rafael

(415) 479-3441

www.rodefsholom.org


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