New Bridges deepens ex-Texans Jewish life

Joanne Donsky's story is a familiar one. Like many who came of age during the late 1960s and early 70s, Donsky eschewed the organized religion of her parents when she moved from Houston to Berkeley to go to college.

"Being part of a Jewish community wasn't important to me," she said in an interview from her home in Portola Valley. Although she grew up very much a part of Houston's Jewish community, as an adult she just wasn't interested in that anymore. She didn't need it. It didn't seem to have a place in her life.

A lot has changed since then. In June, Donsky received the Jim Brooks Award from the Jewish Community Federation's South Peninsula region. The award is given annually to a new, up-and-coming leader in the Jewish community. Donsky was honored for her work as chair of New Bridges.

New Bridges, a 4-year-old organization based in Palo Alto, links uninvolved and unaffiliated Jews, as well as those seeking further connections, with the South Bay's broader Jewish community. Unlike many other organizations, New Bridges is not single-issue focused and reaches out to all Jews regardless of age, marital status or area of interest.

"She is probably the single most important person and factor in our success," New Bridges' Executive Director Janice Sands-Weinstein said of Donsky. "Her commitment is remarkable. It's a full-time job for her as chair of our committee. She's involved and concerned about every aspect of what's happening now with New Bridges."

As far as future concerns, funding is at the top of the list. For the past four years, New Bridges has been supported by grants from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and the South Peninsula Council of the JCF. This past year, Donsky got commitments from private donors totaling $30,000 a year for the next three years.

And as Donsky has brought Jews into the Jewish community through New Bridges, so New Bridges has led her and her family into an integrated Jewish life, much like that which she knew in Houston.

"Jewish community was a central part of my life as I was growing up," said Donsky. "I grew up knowing all the Jewish kids my age because of youth activities. Jewish community was there for me and very much a part of my life."

It was something she took for granted, but her parents made it happen. When Donsky was 9 years old, her family moved from San Angelo, a small town in west Texas where there were only a handful of Jewish families, to Houston so that she and her sister could be raised in a Jewish environment. Her father became very active in Jewish organizations and Donsky's youth was rooted in the Jewish community. But once she was out on her own, being part of a Jewish community no longer seemed relevant.

After graduating from college, Donsky moved to San Francisco and later married Stuart Oremland, who is also Jewish. Eighteen years ago they moved to the Peninsula. After a while it hit her. Something was missing from their life.

"What was missing for me was Jewish community," Donsky said. But diagnosis and treatment were two different things. "I wasn't clear on how to become a part of [the Jewish community]. We weren't really religious so being a member of a congregation didn't fit for us."

That's when fate took over. One year at Rosh Hashanah services at Stanford Hillel, Donsky found a survey in her prayerbook from the Jewish Community Building Network asking whether Jewish community was important to her. It was, and she left her name and phone number.

Shortly thereafter she got a call from Linda Kurz inviting her to a meeting.

"They were trying to formulate ways to help unaffiliated Jews to connect," remembers Donsky. Focus groups were formed and Donsky discovered that there were lots of other Jews out there in the same position as she was. "They were looking for connections with other Jews but not through traditional routes. People didn't know where the Jewish community was. There are no Jewish neighborhoods. No Jewish delis. There wasn't a place to go to see other Jews."

According to Donsky, one participant captured what everyone wanted when he said, "I'm looking for something just like this. Getting together with other [Jewish] people in a casual comfortable way."

The Jewish Community Building Network committee grew into New Bridges, which now has a membership of almost 1,400 families and brings in an average of 20 new members a month. Organizers no longer need to put questionnaires in prayerbooks. These days word of mouth and a Web site — www.newbridges.org — does the work for them.

They continue to bring together groups where friendships are formed. Sometimes these friendships lead to involvement in existing Jewish organizations, and other times these friendships become the basis of their own Jewish community. And membership is not just unaffiliated Jews. It includes those who may belong to a synagogue but are looking to venture out and become involved in other organizations.

In addition to sponsoring events such as the upcoming "To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival" in Palo Alto on Sunday, Sept. 9, New Bridges sends out weekly newsletters and schedules of upcoming Jewish events.

Six years ago Donsky and her husband joined Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where their 11-year-old son Greg attends religious school.

And now Donsky feels her life is complete.

"I've achieved what I wanted to do, to become part of the Jewish community," says Donsky. "New Bridges enabled me to do that."