It’s 7 a.m. Time to rise and shine for Pilates. At 9:30, water aerobics. After lunch, folk dancing, hula, basketball and Spanish conversation class. Or just hike the hills. Play golf. Take your pick.
Welcome to Rossmoor.
Edged along the oak-studded hills of Walnut Creek, Rossmoor is a 51-year-old 1,800-acre senior community. With some 10,000 residents (average age 77) it’s more like a self-contained city.
And it’s surprisingly Jewish — up to 10 percent, according to the best guess of some residents, though exact figures aren’t available.
Among the 200-odd clubs and organizations at Rossmoor are a Jewish social club, a synagogue, a Torah study group, chapters of ORT, Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women, and a pro-Israel Middle East education council called MEICOR, all of which meet regularly. There’s even a Yiddish club for the few dedicated speakers of the mamaloshen.
At Rossmoor, there’s always something Jewish going on.
“What’s not to like?” says Fritzie Noble, a retired social worker from Los Angeles who moved to Rossmoor with her husband 11 years ago. “It’s like a resort, a big camp. There’s a sense of security here. I love the opportunities to get involved.”
Noble, 81, says a bad back has slowed her down a bit. Instead of golf and tennis, she now swims and walks her dog. She volunteers for the Rossmoor News, the community newspaper that routinely tops 70 pages and always includes a two-page spread of the week’s activities.
Noble is also active with Congregation B’nai Israel, Rossmoor’s 350-member synagogue, which holds Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday night at the Hillside Club, adjacent to the lawn bowling greens. Annual dues are a bargain at $20.
Judy Morris, 83, serves as congregation president. She also heads the ritual committee and welcomes all to Shabbat services. She’s had plenty of preparation for these roles. Her late husband, Herbert Morris, served as rabbi of San Francisco’s Temple Judea (later for the combined congregation of Beth Israel Judea) and as chaplain for the San Francisco Police Department.
“I’ve been in training for this for 50 years,” said Morris, who moved from San Carlos to Rossmoor 15 years ago. “I had never led anything in my life. But I know Judaism. I love people, and I love working with them.”
B’nai Israel dates back to 1978, when the first services were held. Seven years later, the congregation held its first High Holy Day services, using a Torah borrowed from an East Bay synagogue. Nearly 300 people turned out. In 1996, B’nai Israel was gifted a Torah, which congregants today use only on High Holy Days.
Friday night services are led by Cantor Rachel Brott, and typically fill the Vista Room. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services fill Rossmoor’s gleaming new events center, which seats up to 500 people. B’nai Israel also sponsors guest speakers, bagel brunches, and celebrations of Hanukkah and Purim.
But not all Jewish residents of Rossmoor are drawn to religious services.
Larry Silver, 73, and his wife moved to Rossmoor three years ago. Natives of New Jersey, the Silvers, like so many others, chose Rossmoor because it allowed them to live near children and grandchildren. Though he longed for an active Jewish life, Silver is not religious and did not want to go to services for his dose of Yiddishkeit.
So two years ago he launched the Shalom Club.
“I talked to the people at the B’nai Israel board meeting and said I’d like to start some kind of Jewish social club,” Silver recalls. “We don’t do anything religious.”
That is, unless one considers it religious for Jews to eat Chinese food at Christmas, which is what the Shalom Club did for its kick-off event two Decembers ago. The event drew 45 people, and the club grew from there.
Silver says the Shalom Club, which meets monthly, has 120 members and draws up to 70 people for events, including a Valentine’s Day dinner earlier this year, and taking in the East Bay Jewish Film Festival in Pleasanton, followed by pizza at Zachary’s. Next month, the club hosts a picnic, and in September, a klezmer band comes in to entertain.
Silver, who still works in the graphic arts, says maintaining Jewish connections turned out to be surprisingly important to him once he got to Rossmoor.
“It’s our history, our background,” he says. “It’s part of us. Even though a lot of us are not overly religious, it’s still our heritage. You can relate to people from your community.”
Gerald Preibat, 84, has long been part of the Rossmoor Jewish community, even when he was too young to live there. His parents moved to Walnut Creek in 1976, and when they passed away a few years later, Preibat inherited their Rossmoor home and moved in.
A former nuclear engineer, Preibat is a Rossmoor macher. He sits on the board of the Golden Rain Foundation, a lay-led community oversight organization, and served as president of his homeowners’ association, one of 18 at Rossmoor. He’s also a B’nai Israel past president.
Though macular degeneration has left him nearly blind, he still cruises around Rossmoor’s 18-hole Dollar Ranch Course in a golf cart. Not to worry. Preibat says he relies on his “seeing-eye wife and a seeing-eye daughter.”
Thanks to his decades-long connection, Preibat knows Rossmoor, its streets and its people, very well. He says the place is built out, meaning there’s no more land on which to construct new housing.
That’s a testament to the success of the place. Rossmoor was the brainchild of Ross Cortese, who in 1960 bought the acreage from the estate of Stanley Dollar (1844-1932), the millionaire founder of the Dollar Steamship line. Cortese envisioned the ultimate in retirement living for the 55-and-over set.
Initially, Cortese planned 10,000 manor homes and 17,000 residents, but Walnut Creek city officials pressed him to lower his sights. Rossmoor has topped out at 6,700 co-ops, condos and single-family homes, with current prices ranging from $200,000 to $1 million-plus.
Today, deer and wild turkey graze green spaces beneath big skies. Lawns are impeccably manicured. Litter is non-existent. The place is green, quiet and runs as smoothly as a cruise ship.
Monthly dues, which start at around $750, cover such amenities as water, garbage pick-up, fitness center membership, 24-hour security, van shuttle service to BART, and cable TV. Rossmoor even has its own channel.
As in any city, Rossmoor residents come from all ethnic groups and regions, embodying every shade of political and religious belief. That includes Jews supportive of Israel and, every now and then, those not so supportive.
Among Rossmoor’s 200 clubs is Voices for Justice in Palestine. While not as loud and aggressive as protesters on campus, its members have handed out anti-Israel leaflets at Jewish events, and posted critical notices on the community bulletin board.
Free speech is free speech, but more than a few Jews at Rossmoor remember the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the establishment of Israel, and take umbrage at the anti-Israel presence at Rossmoor.
Boston native Moe Richman, 86, has lived in Rossmoor with his St. Louis-born wife, Margie, for 24 years. He remembers encountering veiled anti-Semitism when they first moved from Moraga to Rossmoor, but says the Jewish community there has grown in spite of it. Over time, he says, old school anti-Semitism was supplanted by anti-Zionism.
About 13 years ago, he and a few friends wrapped up a round of golf, complaining about “the lousy press Israel got,” as he puts it. “We had to do something about it.”
Richman, along with Phil Goodman and Gene Meyers, formed MEICOR, the Middle East Education and Information Council of Rossmoor. Their first event featured a guest speaker from the Israel Defense Forces and drew an audience of 350. Richman knew then that MEICOR filled a need at Rossmoor.
Margie Richman, who serves as the club’s program director, says guest speakers who have headlined MEICOR gatherings include author and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman and Zionist Organization of America national director Morton Klein. Those events generally pull in up to 125 people.
More recently, the Jews of Rossmoor experienced a new twist on anti-Israel activism: the effort to install a Peace Pole on the premises.
The Peace Pole phenomenon began innocently enough in Japan more than 50 years ago. Made of stone or wood, the “poles” are small obelisks on which is written “May peace prevail on earth,” usually in four or five languages. Accor-ding to the World Peace Prayer Society, there are more than 100,000 such poles around the world.
According to Moe Richman, the Rossmoor resident lobbying for a Peace Pole was stridently anti-Zionist and made no secret of the fact that he wanted the pole as a springboard to a conversation about the evils of Israel.
Richman says a community governing council ultimately rejected the pole, viewing it as too political for Rossmoor.
While Israel remains a contentious topic, Rossmoor Jews aligned with other Jewish causes have met with smooth sailing.
Elaine Brown represents the Rossmoor chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, an organization that works to improve the lives of women, children and families of all faiths. She touts her chapter’s activism, including a project to knit caps and sweaters for local veterans and newborns, and collecting supplies for a women’s shelter in Martinez.
Linda Spiegelman, 73, belongs to the Rossmoor chapter of Hadassah. The Long Island, New York, native brought up her kids in Foster City and moved to Rossmoor with her husband over two years ago. She says her activism stems from a deep connection to her fellow Jews.
“I have such love and respect for the Jewish community,” she says. “It’s wonderful to be in Rossmoor because I have opportunities to so easily be part of that.”
Her Hadassah chapter, which boasts approximately 300 members, includes more than just Rossmoor residents, with some members hailing from the surrounding Diablo Valley area. The chapter hosts as many as five events a year, including bringing in guest speakers and holding fundraisers. The chapter raised $156,000 last year for Hadassah projects, including the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
Despite the many Jewish clubs and institutions at Rossmoor, in the past leaders rarely coordinated their events or worked together.
This past April, all of the Jewish organizations of Rossmoor teamed up to stage a celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. More than 250 people filled the Rossmoor Events Center — festooned with blue and white balloons — to hear speeches, eat falafel, enjoy live Israeli music and get a sense of their collective strength.
“All the Jewish clubs participated,” Silver says. “In the past there were complaints about how little communication there was among the organizations. Nobody checked with one anther. Finally, we put together a Jewish calendar to coordinate.”
With the constant whirr of activity, one may forget that Rossmoor residents are getting on. Recent statistics show 23 percent are between ages 85 and 94. Three percent are 95 and above.
Loss comes with the territory.
Fritzie Noble’s first husband died three years after the couple moved to Rossmoor. Fritzie knew she did not want to be alone, so she did what any eligible Jewish woman in her mid-70s would do: She went on JDate.
Through the dating site, she met Bob Noble, who lived in a senior residence nearby. The two married and Bob quickly immersed himself in Jewish life at Rossmoor, serving as an officer with B’nai Israel. He and Fritzie produced the congregational bulletin and set up the Vista Room for Friday night services.
Five years after they married, Bob passed away. In a recent B’nai Israel bulletin, Fritzie thanked her friends in the community and dedicated the issue to Bob.
Reflecting on her life at Rossmoor today, she says, “You don’t replace those relationships of 20 and 30 years. Here, relationships are based around what you do. For me, I couldn’t live here and be happy if I didn’t do something meaningful.”
And so Noble continues to edit B’nai Israel’s monthly bulletin, a task she did with her husband for a few short, happy years. For the Jews of Rossmoor, the emphasis seems to be on the happy part, and not the short.
“You try to find common denominators in life,” says Hadassah volunteer Spiegelman. “One is that you come from a Jewish upbringing. It’s a coming home and finding a place.”