A collective of different faith communities attended the mezuzah ceremony in The Downtown Shul's new space in Santa Cruz on June 10. (Photo/Akindele Bankole)
A collective of different faith communities attended the mezuzah ceremony in The Downtown Shul's new space in Santa Cruz on June 10. (Photo/Akindele Bankole)

‘Wandering Jews’ of Santa Cruz find ideal downtown space

In its nearly 25 years of existence, the Jewish Renewal community of Santa Cruz has done a whole lot of schlepping.

It’s a routine known to any community without its own space. Each time members held services, they had to schlep the Torah and the ark and the prayerbooks and set up everything else, only to break it all down a few hours later.

They began by meeting in each other’s living rooms. Over 20-plus years, the community has met in a Sufi dance chapel, a Quaker Friends meetinghouse, the Center for Conscious Living, a Congregationalist church and a Veterans Hall. Meanwhile, adult education classes and board meetings have taken place in a hospital meeting room, a firehouse and a court stenographer’s office.

After all of these years, rightfully earning the moniker the Wandering Jews of Santa Cruz, they finally have a home to call their own, right in the center of activity. The community long called Chadeish Yameinu will now also be known as “The Downtown Shul” or “The Little Shul in the Galleria” at 740 Front St.

A mezuzah-hanging ceremony was held June 10 and attended by an array of clergy from Santa Cruz’s other religious communities, including four Buddhist groups, the Islamic Center of Santa Cruz and a member of the Catholic community representing Tent of Abraham, a local coalition working to foster understanding among the Abrahamic traditions. Members of what Rabbi Eli Cohen jokingly called the “holy trinity” of Jewish congregations also came — the Hillel at UC Santa Cruz, Conservative Kol Tefillah in Santa Cruz and Reform Temple Beth El down the road in Aptos.

“It means we’re more visible and people know where to find us,” said Jeanne Rosen, a founder and board member who hosted the first services in her living room all those years ago. “It has a psychological effect on those of us who have been keeping this congregation going for 25 years. It’s not as important as having a rabbi or a Torah, but if you’ve already got those two things, you can’t beat having your own place.”

Furthermore, she said, the presence at the ceremony of so many Jews from other communities “was proof that even the other congregations in the area feel somehow like Jewish life has been enhanced by the fact that we have our own place, that Judaism is alive and well in Santa Cruz, whatever Jewish group we belong to.”

While shul members are renting this space, too, and it’s really just one room with a small kitchen they have become experts in beautifying spaces they inhabit. Cohen is excited to have a study in shared space, that both adult education classes and services can be held in the same place, and that he doesn’t have to meet people preparing for a wedding or studying for conversion in his living room.

Cohen has been Chadeish Yameinu’s spiritual leader from the start. The group loosely formed after some Jews in Santa Cruz attended the Kallah, the Renewal movement’s 1993 national gathering in Berkeley, and took to the teachings of its leader, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

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The new space occupied by The Downtown Shul has room for services, classes and meetings. (Photo/Akindele Bankole)

On the advice of a visiting rabbi some years later, they looked to bring in a student rabbi, which is how Cohen was hired. He had moved to Santa Cruz in 1989 and worked as a public defender, but he began thinking about a career change at the same time he became active in the Renewal scene in Berkeley, which is and always has been a hub of Jewish Renewal.

By Passover of 2001, Cohen was hired as a part-time student rabbi, eventually transitioning to full time. He received his ordination in 2005 from Aleph, the Renewal movement.

“I had been teaching and leading services for them already, so I was their first and only choice,” he joked.

The congregation today has about 250 people. It holds regular services with an emphasis on Jewish meditation and music. Many of the Jews in the area also belong to the Reform or Conservative communities.

While the Renewal folks most recently were using the downtown Veterans Hall, they understood it to be a temporary location. Their move there was prompted when the officials at their former home, the Congregationalist church, hosted “a major BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] conference during Passover a couple of years ago and they were nonresponsive to our concerns about it, so we no longer felt comfortable there,” said Cohen.

On the upside, some allies within the church helped find the rental at the Veterans Hall, “which brought us into the heart of downtown, with all its pluses and minuses,” said Cohen.

The board determined that the pluses outweighed the minuses, and when a suitable space in the Galleria Wellness Center opened up, they grabbed it.

“Our culture is such that people have poured out their time and their money to create this beautiful space,” said Cohen. “It’s been phenomenal to watch. It reminded us that when people built the Miskhan in the Book of Exodus, people were pouring forth in the same way.” One new gift is a parochet, or curtain over the ark, with the biblical passage “kol n’div libo,” or “all who are generous of heart.”

The Galleria is filled mostly with offices, wellness practitioners and spiritual groups, as well as the county Democratic group. Veg on the Edge, an African vegan restaurant partially owned by Cohen, is a block away.

“We feel our move here really fits in with the rejuvenation of this part of [town],” said Rosen. “We’re the little funky shul in downtown Santa Cruz. There’s this feeling of putting down different kinds of roots by being more visible downtown.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."