Sonomas young Jewish adults reach for the SKY

The Jewish population of Sonoma County had a problem. While increasing numbers of Jews were moving in, the once-rural area lacked resources for young Jewish adults.

With that in mind, a few newcomers decided to hold a Shabbat dinner early last summer. Promoted only by word of mouth and e-mail, the event drew 25 people.

Encouraged by that success, organizers spent the next few months forming an official club, in association with the Young Adult Division (YAD) of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. They selected a name and hired a leader.

SKY was born, the acronym for Sonoma Kesher Yehudit, and Shawn Laing was hired as its leader Aug. 1. The position is under the aegis of the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County, based in Santa Rosa, with funding through a Jewish Community Endowment Fund grant.

In the last couple of months, SKY's mailing list has grown to 70, including both singles and married couples. Targeting Jewish adults in the "22-ish to 40-ish" age range, Laing said that the idea behind SKY is to provide a way for young Jewish people "to get together and hang out with other Jewish people their own age," for both religious and secular activities.

"We've all been very happy to discover that there is a young Jewish community thriving in Sonoma County," said Karen Garber, who lives in the town of Sonoma. "Many of us are new to the area, and this has been a great way to get together with other young Jewish people for both social and spiritual activities."

Craig Stone, who lives in Rohnert Park, agrees. "It's good being connected to the young Jewish community," he said. "When you're with other Jews, you relate differently. There's a sense of community and camaraderie. And it's gratifying to learn there are so many people here…We have a great turnout for our events."

Laing is also happy with the response. "Our ultimate goal," he said, "is to reach as many young Jewish adults as possible to be able to get together on a regular basis — and be able to enjoy each other's company at all kinds of events from hikes to Shabbat diners to wine tasting."

Laing, who is also the director of Hillel serving students at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State, comes to the position with experience in Jewish organizations here and in Israel.

He recently spent a year and a half in Israel working with the Jewish National Fund in the youth leadership department. He has also worked as a NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) synagogue adviser in Atlanta, part of the Reform movement, and spent 12 years as a camper and staff member in the movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations camp in Georgia.

Since Laing signed on with SKY, the group has held at least one event every month, including a pool party, Shabbat potluck, picnic, restaurant dinner party and Chanukah party. A Shabbat potluck is set for Dec. 24.

"Our events are drawing young Jewish adults from all over the Bay Area," said Laing, "from San Francisco, Berkeley, the Peninsula and all over Sonoma County. We're getting between 12 and 40 people depending on the event, and it's growing all the time."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."