Beth Ami pioneers wax nostalgic about the old days

In some ways, Santa Rosa's Jewish community has been a victim of its own success. Over time its numbers have swelled, but the sense of family has diminished.

Four Congregation Beth Ami pioneers reminisced nostalgically during a recent discussion about Santa Rosa's small but vibrant Jewish community in the 1940s and '50s.

"It was one big family," said Evelyn Gurevitch, who moved to Santa Rosa with her husband and toddler in 1944. "Everything revolved around the congregation, socially and religiously. It was a community that doesn't really exist today. I don't know everyone anymore."

Membership in the Santa Rosa Jewish Community Center has ballooned from about 40 families in the 1940s to a Conservative congregation with more than 300 families today. Many community members have achieved their goal of assimilating into mainstream American life. To the sorrow of some, their children married outside the religion.

The trend may explain why Congregation Beth Ami's Sisterhood died in the 1960s, despite Gurevitch's attempts to resuscitate it.

Gurevitch shared the stage on a recent Saturday night with old-timers Edith Newman, Everett Shapiro and Benny Friedman.

Known today as one of Sonoma County's leading philanthropists, Friedman owned a Petaluma junk store that became the county's hardware store. Newman, who fled Nazi Germany, settled on a Santa Rosa chicken ranch in 1950. Shapiro, an attorney, grew up in Santa Rosa at a time when the trip to Petaluma could, in his words, feel like "an exodus."

The four spoke with Bay Area historians Fred Rosenbaum and Stephen Dobbs. The two are interviewing Bay Area Jews for a book they are writing about the Jews of Northern California from the 1850s until the present.

Rosenbaum kicked off the discussion by pointing out that Santa Rosa's population grew from 4,000 in 1880 to 12,000 in 1940, swelling in the last few decades to reach its current 120,000.

Friedman recalled traveling from his childhood home in Santa Rosa to San Francisco in his father's Model T Ford truck before the 1937 opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, when a ferry was the only way to cross the bay. His father sold furniture, which he bought in San Francisco. "They would stick me in between the furniture on the truck," said Friedman, sitting and leaning on his cane. "We had a big rainstorm. How I kept from drowning, I don't know. I never wanted to go again."

Shapiro said the community built a "barn-like shul" on property a congregation member donated in the 1920s. The property owner stood at the door and controlled who could enter the Orthodox synagogue, which smelled like a tannery because of its proximity to one.

The congregation opened a Reform temple on Orchard Street in 1947. When Newman joined in 1950, the sisterhood formed. "We were forever cooking. We were forever moving benches around. We had all sorts of money-raising efforts," she said.

When the congregation talked about raising dues from $60 a year to $70 a year, some members threatened to leave, Newman said. "The meetings were sheer horror." Yet, she said, "The minute the meeting was over, everybody loved each other."

Said Gurevitch: "We argued and argued and argued, and we were friends when we left. We lost members. But we never lost friends."

That was not the case some miles away in the rural enclave of Petaluma, where political differences tore apart the Jewish community in the 1940s and '50s. Some Jews — many of them chicken ranchers — considered themselves communists. People called them "pinkos," said Shapiro.

Santa Rosa Jews, on the other hand, were primarily business people, he said, tilted more to the right.

"They were all more socialist than communist, in my eyes," Newman added.

The two Sonoma County Jewish communities did have some similarities, though. Like the Petaluma Jews, those in Santa Rosa argued over whether the congregation should be a religious or a social institution. "The majority did not want the congregation," Newman said. "They liked the social, but they did not go along with the religious part of it. Since very few had families here, we were a family. One big chavurah."

When the congregation grew too big for the Orchard Street synagogue, the men built another room, the Rose Room, onto it, without permits. "In those days," Friedman said, "we didn't know what a permit was."

The men built and the women cooked.

"We were a wonderful community," said Shapiro. "It was a great place to live. To grow up was even better. The community has been damned nice to us. They didn't think of us as Jews and them as Christians. We were generally accepted."

Newman said she never felt anti-Semitism in Santa Rosa. Shapiro said he felt very little. Occasionally, he said, when he was a schoolboy, another child would point him out as a Jew.

Gurevitch, however, said her husband's business suffered because he and his father were the area's only Jewish carpenters.

In search of other Jewish children, Gurevitch and Newman drove their kids to Petaluma and south toward San Francisco. "I was fortunate enough to have my daughter marry the only available Jewish boy in Petaluma," said Gurevitch, whose children are 55 and 58 now.

Newman's children, the only Jews in their Sebastopol schools, married non-Jews. "Coming from a country that chased us out and did not regard us as human beings, then to have your children intermarry, it wasn't easy," she said. "It was not a happy feeling."

Shapiro concluded: "We've achieved assimilation."