Grand opening of Jewish center in Solano County is bittersweet

They came in military fatigues and in shirtsleeves, in suits and skirts, shorts and jeans. From around Solano County they gathered, the very young and the elderly and everything in between, to celebrate and bless the new, Fairfield home of the Jewish Community of Solano County.

As it turned out, last month's event was somewhat muted, as attendees also felt grief and anger over the terrorist attacks against America.

"I'm here to celebrate a new beginning for the new Jewish Community of Solano County and also to mourn the loss of so many innocent lives with members of my own community," said Steve Harris of Benicia, president of the group.

Jeff Cohen of Suisun came for similar reasons. "I'm here to show my support for the opening of our center for worship and study, and to celebrate fellowship." He added, "I think it's important to gather together to acknowledge the common humanity that unites us."

For decades, Solano County was home to only one synagogue — Congregation B'nai Israel in Vallejo. So the Jewish Community of Solano County represents a choice for area Jews, especially those living in eastern Solano, which includes Fairfield, Vacaville and Travis.

Though a Jewish Center of Solano County was founded in 1994 — offering religious services, social events and adult education classes — it was loosely organized, with a dedicated corps of volunteers but no real home or permanent rabbi.

That effort was infused with new energy about a year ago, however, when former Air Force Rabbi Stephen Vale returned to the region and took on the task of reviving what he called Solano's "lost Jewish community."

The Sept. 12 grand opening ceremony in a storefront at a Fairfield strip mall had been planned weeks in advance, but the events of Sept. 11 changed the tone.

Cohen, one of several dozen people to show up, said he'd been riding an emotional roller coaster since the airplane attacks in New York and Washington.

"I'm shocked, hurt, upset and very emotional," he said. "Seeing the flags at half mast on the way here, I had to fight back tears. I can feel the ripple effect of the pure evil that perpetuated the act."

The group sang "Hinei Mah Tov" — its words express "how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in harmony." And with the High Holy Days so close at hand, Rabbi Vale sounded the shofar in the ancient tradition.

Joining hands, the group said a prayer for the people of the world to find peace and wholeness in the face of tragedy. Then participants recited the Kaddish.

Many were grappling with unfamiliar feelings of rage and intense sadness, and the rabbi addressed the heavy emotions surrounding the terrorist attacks.

"Shalom should not be confused with peace only," he said. "The word actually means wholeness. It is not a rejection of the feelings of rage and fear many of us are feeling right now. It embraces the wholeness of all our feelings."

It is OK to have these feelings, Vale said, but acting on them is not. Nor is it acceptable, the rabbi said, to focus rage or hatred against any group of people.

Just as there were sparks of light during even the darkest days of the Holocaust, Vale said, there are sparks of light in this nightmare as well. He cited the renewed sense of patriotism and the possibility of the world uniting against terrorism.

The group then moved outside the building at 1615 West Texas St., No. 4, to dedicate the site. Prayers of blessing were recited as mezuzot were attached to the doorposts.

Jewish Community of Solano County has already attracted more than 50 member families, and will be holding regular religious services, Sunday school, holiday celebrations and other functions.

The grand opening ended with celebrants, arms entwined, singing Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," and "God Bless America." Vale said they should take comfort in knowing that "there are people all over the county, the country, and the world praying with us as we pray for healing and for shalom — for peace."

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."