Miriam Root is a past president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Marysville, and has been a member for more than 30 years. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Miriam Root is a past president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Marysville, and has been a member for more than 30 years. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Gold Country synagogue may be sold, members to focus on philanthropy

A small congregation about 40 miles north of Sacramento will be winding down its Friday night services and most likely selling its historic 1905 building after the rabbi’s recent retirement and in response to financial difficulties set on by dwindling membership.

Congregation Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Marysville, a former gold mining town in Yuba County, was established in 1981 as the Jewish Community Fellowship. CBS took on its current name in 2002. At its peak, the community had 50 families. It now has 10.

Synagogue leaders plan on pivoting to become more of a philanthropic entity for the surrounding area. The congregation recently created a tzedakah group to gather donations for a local food bank. If the building is sold, its assets, as well as some of the Judaica and books inside, will be donated to organizations such as the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region.

Since 2003, CBS has been housed in a former saloon constructed in 1905 that has been used over the years as a boarding house, the headquarters for a nonprofit and possibly a brothel.

I don’t want us to feel over and done, because we’re not.

Miriam Root, a past president and 30-year member of CBS, remembers that before the synagogue settled in its current location, congregants would meet in different buildings in the area, including a church and, as she remembers fondly, the conference room of a nearby paint factory.

“We just wandered throughout the community,” she said. “It was amazing. We had a lot of strong support. We had a lot of love and community.”

Rabbi Shula Stevens Calmann, who joined the synagogue in 2017, retired in June. At an annual meeting in July, synagogue leaders discussed the cumulative financial strains over the years, and the fact that “very few” members had been attending online events during the pandemic, according to president Donna Clark, a longtime member whose son and daughter celebrated their b’nai mitzvah at the synagogue.

Donna Clark
Donna Clark

“Of course, there’s sadness,” said Clark. “We worked hard to keep things going. I also don’t want to lose everything.”

She noted that many of the older members of the congregation had passed away over the last five or six years.

Root said that with all of the challenges facing the synagogue, it didn’t “make fiscal sense” to hire another rabbi. Before the pandemic, CBS was easily able to make a minyan — 10 Jewish adults needed to conduct a Torah reading and hold other services — but that has become more difficult during the pandemic.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It is sad. But it’s also like turning a page to the next chapter. I don’t want us to feel over and done, because we’re not.”

Over the years, members of CBS have helped to take care of the Marysville Hebrew Cemetery, built in 1855 to serve the local Gold Rush community and used until 1945. The 50-grave plot is located in a corner of the city’s cemetery off Highway 70. While the Jewish part of the cemetery is officially under the care of the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks, Root said that she still intends to visit the site.

Congregation Beth Shalom in Marysville, a Reform synagogue of about 25 older members located near the town center and the Yuba River. If it looks like the town watering hole, that's because the building was originally built as a saloon. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Congregation Beth Shalom’s building in Marysville was once a boarding house. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

“It’s important that it be maintained and cared for,” she said in a text message.

The nearest Jewish community is in Grass Valley, about a 45-minute drive that passes through an unincorporated area called Timbuctoo.

Root and Clark both hope some form of Jewish community can be maintained, whether in the form of movie nights at a congregant’s home or restaurant meetups. There are also plans to recruit rabbis from around the area to continue offering online Torah studies.

“We’ll have to see how many stick with us with this new vision,” said Clark.

Arie Knyazev, who serves on the board and has been a member of CBS since 2008, thinks it is unlikely that the community will come back together in person again on a regular basis. If possible, he said, he’d like people to continue gathering for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Passover.

The shift toward becoming a philanthropic-oriented group “doesn’t have the same feel,” said Knyazev. “I’m a bit more pessimistic about us returning back.”

A more optimistic note was shared by Knyazev’s mother, Lana, the board’s secretary, who said that while she’s “heartbroken” over the temple’s transition, she’s also hopeful.

“We were for the community as a congregation,” she said. “And now we are for the community as a benevolent society.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.