Home at last: Morgan Hill congregation opens first permanent synagogue

Holding the inaugural bat mitzvah service at Congregation Emeth’s new building last weekend, acting rabbi Debbie Israel took note: For the children gathered, this was probably their first time ever in a synagogue.

That’s because the 70-family Morgan Hill Reform congregation never had a permanent home, until now. With the opening

of the new facility on the town’s main street, Congre-gation Emeth becomes the only brick-and-mortar Jewish institution in southern Santa Clara County, which includes Gilroy, Hollister, South San Jose and Morgan Hill.

“For 31 years [congregants] have been traveling from homes to various churches and schools, having to put up the creative sanctuary and tear it down after services,” Israel said. “It was very demanding. Now the Torah gets to stay in the ark and the eternal light stays on all the time.”

The congregation purchased the 73-year-old former church-restaurant in April, and worked nonstop since to refurbish it. Though now open for business, the new synagogue’s official dedication ceremony takes place Sept. 12.

Because the Monterey Road structure was in foreclosure, Congregation Emeth bought it for the relatively low price of $825,000. But it was not in great shape. The former restaurant still had dining room tables set and food rotting in the kitchen. Homeless people had broken in, using the facility as shelter.

Congregants raised the money for the building via bonds purchased using personal IRAs and other means. Israel credits congregational president Michael Oshan, treasurer Barry Freund and past secretary Elizabeth Mandel as the leaders on the project. A capital campaign to pay down the mortgage and finance other improvements is under way.

About 30 minutes south of downtown San Jose, Morgan Hill and its environs can feel like a world away from the Bay Area metropolis. This is a place where the region Garlic Festival, Mushroom Festival and the Fourth of July parade constitute the calendar’s highpoints.

But the area is growing. Israel says many congregants commute to high-tech, education or social service jobs to the north. The small-town atmosphere and affordable housing have proven attractive.

It certainly attracted her. A native of Houston, Israel had been the publisher of Noah’s Ark, a newspaper insert for Jewish kids that reached up to a million readers worldwide. She also served as executive director of Jewish Women International (formerly B’nai B’rith Women).

Four years ago, she enrolled in the Academy for Jewish Religion, a Los Angeles rabbinical college, commuting weekly between Houston and L.A. Two years ago, Israel’s daughter in Santa Cruz introduced her to Paula Marcus, a rabbi at Aptos’ Temple Beth El and an AJR alum. Marcus told Israel about a little congregation in need of a rabbi.

It was a good fit for both, and Israel has been with Congregation Emeth ever since. She will be ordained next year, and will then change her title from acting rabbi to rabbi.

Congregation Emeth was established in 1977, with about a dozen families to start. A few years later, they hired Rabbi Jerold Levy, who served the congregation for 17 years. Rabbi Yitzhak Miller followed, though he departed in 2005. Last year, Emeth set up shop in a temporary home in Gilroy.

Now, those traveling days are over.

But not so much for Israel, who lives in Capitola and must make the bucolic drive to Morgan Hill every day. Not that she minds passing by the ranches, farms and vineyards along the way.

Said Israel, “I can’t believe I’m working in a place where I pass signs that say ‘Goats for sale.'”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.