Kristin Thurman-Fein walked toward the fire pit, grabbed a pinecone from a bucket and chucked it into the fire, tossing a “sin” in with it. With the Russian River only a few yards away, her community responded with a resounding “feh!” — helping to dissolve the sin as part of the repentance of Yom Kippur.
Thurman-Fein’s community — the Russian River Jewish Community — has been around for more than 35 years, nurturing Jewish culture and traditions, and friendships, in a region where a person’s nearest neighbor might be a quarter-mile away.
“It’s a tight community,” Thurman-Fein said. “We dance in the woods and atone in the river.”
Though their events aren’t big and don’t occur often, they usually take place in gorgeous natural settings in West Sonoma County. This year, for example, the community celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Armstrong Woods State Park and Yom Kippur on the banks of the Russian River in Guerneville.
The gatherings are intimate and participatory, and people come from miles away to be a part of them — from small burgs like Monte Rio and Jenner and larger places like Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
“This is a secular community, and what’s emphasized is Jewish culture,” said Dan Fein, a longtime member of the RRJC.
Like many drawn to the RRJC, Fein, the husband of Thurman-Fein, grew up in a Conservative household but then struggled as an adult with many of the religious aspects of Judaism. Thirty-two years ago, soon after he moved to Monte Rio, he attended an RRJC seder at a local restaurant.
Instantly he knew that was how he wanted to connect with his Jewish core. “It felt real to me,” he said.
Gatherings like the Sept. 23 event described above, which took place during the last few hours of Yom Kippur, bring the group closer to nature and give them a sense of belonging in true West County style, members said. Attire is casual, and singing, dancing and playing instruments is frequent.
And a welcoming, friendly attitude is constant, said Steve Einstein, who led the Yom Kippur gathering, which was free to attend though donations were requested.
A hospice nurse who lives in Sebastopol, Einstein quoted Elie Wiesel to eloquently explain the group’s spirit:
“A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”
Within that context, the Yom Kippur gathering took on a personal and interactive tone — and it took only a pithy 90 minutes to hit all of the holiday’s key points.
Following the purging of sins via pinecones into the fire, Einstein invited the group to recall loved ones who had died in the past year. Each of the approximately 60 attendees spoke the names of loved ones whom they wanted to recognize. Then Kaddish was recited.
Founding member Alby Kass, who owns the property, the Riverlane Resort, where the gathering is held every year, sang Kol Nidre, and attendees read the Al Chet confession of sins. They also recited the Shehechiyanu and sang “Hinei Ma Tov,” and a few tested their lungs by blowing tekiah g’dolah on the shofar.
In addition, non-traditional readings were inserted at times, such as Pope Francis’ “A Prayer for Our Earth” and Billy Collins’ poem “The Lanyard.” The event ended with a spirited break-the-fast potluck, which included homemade goodies, salads and fruit.
Einstein said most of the attendees wanted to mark Yom Kippur but didn’t want to spend the day in synagogue.
“I don’t like traditional organized religion,” said Fran Levy, who had recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel. “I usually come to Yom Kippur [on the river]. It’s important to me.”
Levy is one of the Jewish residents of West Sonoma County who would describe themselves as being on the fringe of the RRJC. Fein said he sees many of these people just once a year, at the Yom Kippur gathering. The core members — who plan and host events, serve on the board and as volunteers and help raise funds — are few, but committed.
Natasha Pehrson, board president of the RRJC, said there are about 50 paying members, and the group recently has been granted its 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
“We’re all happy Jews. We just do it our way. It works for us,” she said. “Yes, we’re very small — but we’re here.”
Russian River Jewish Community www.rrjc.org or (707) 632-5545