“I’m very happy to be here,” said Powell, who is affiliated with a synagogue in Pleasant Hill. “This is the third of four workshops where I’m helping the congregation to build up their basic structure of songs to follow. That way, they can lead their own services without a cantor.”
Creative alternatives are the cornerstone of this eclectic group. Because they’re a small congregation marshaling neither the funds nor membership to build their own synagogue, the 40-plus members of B’nai Torah meet each week in St. George’s Episcopal Church. The two congregations enjoy a symbiotic relationship – one worshipping on Saturday; the other on Sunday – that makes a tacit argument for religious tolerance. But in spite of their numbers, or perhaps because of them, B’nai Torah is a strong, unified congregation working to grow its membership yet content with its size.
Finding a home
This is the B’nai Torah congregation’s third location in 23 years. “We are the true Wandering Jews,” joked Darrell Goodin, who joined B’nai Torah after moving from the Peninsula to Antioch with his family six years ago. “It was a big change for us, but we like the community, and this is our home,” said Goodin. “It’s different from where we came from, but we’re here and we’re growing. It’s a good place to be.”
For years, finding Jews in East County has been a little like searching for the Lost Tribes of Israel. Larger communities in nearby Stockton, Walnut Creek and San Francisco have traditionally offered the overall “Jewish Experience” – neighborhood delicatessens, established synagogues, Hebrew schools and a more present sense of community. But absent those mainstays, Jews in East County have learned to compromise.
Goodin’s story is similar to others’ here this evening. Affordable housing, job opportunities and a lighter commute brought his family to Antioch from the Peninsula, and are only a few of the reasons transplanted Jews such as the Goodins have opted for less in their overall Jewish experience as they search for their collective more.
And at B’nai Torah, those needs are being met.
“It’s been hard for us; it’s been a transition,” said Julie Einess, who came from a larger congregation but joined B’nai Torah a few years ago when her family moved to Brentwood. “But there are also perks to a smaller group, because you know everyone and it’s more personal. It’s worked very well for us.”
Einess’s son Alex was recently bar mitzvahed at B’nai Torah and was prepared for his ceremony by a group of volunteers in the congregation. The experience made the event all the more powerful. “There is lots of unity here,” said Alex. “And I think that is something that is pretty uncommon in other congregations.”
If the people of B’nai Torah long to expand their membership, they also remain staunch in the belief that if they build a firm foundation, others will come.
“I think that we originally affiliated with this congregation because it was so accepting and close,” said Matt Cordova, who with his family has been a member of B’nai Torah for seven years. “It was a very warm and welcoming group. We stay here because our feeling is that this is our community. If it doesn’t have something we want, I think we feel that we need to make it happen ourselves. It’s up to us to provide what we need.”
Without a formal temple or synagogue in East County, B’nai Torah – the only Jewish assembly in town – has made its home in a Christian church. But last year Chabat of the Delta came to Brentwood – currently operating out of the Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz’s home. And although both congregation’s numbers ebb and flow, a renewed outreach program and events such as the visiting cantor series at B’nai Torah are doing much to get the word out and increase membership.
The presence of small Jewish congregations is not an anomaly, says B’nai Torah Rabbi Ira Book, but is more and more becoming the norm. And the reason is simple. “We no longer have the uninterrupted communities we once did,” said Book. “People don’t stay in the same job or homes that they did 30 years ago. Young families are more mobile, and rightly so. It’s our job to help accommodate that.”
Rabbi Berkowitz’s wife Chaya agreed. Chabat of the Delta – its worldwide parent organization boasts 4,500 centers across the globe – made headway and headlines last year by erecting a Menorah in The Streets of Brentwood. The Berkowitzes believe the growing numbers of religious faithful in their new community has been encouraging.
“What brought us out here is that Brentwood and East County are growing and there’s a need for Jewish education and affiliation,” said Chaya, who moved here from New York. “This area is pretty far out (from nearby synagogues) and there is really nothing out here. But we’ve been reaching out and the response has been very nice. People are excited that we’re here.”
Jews in a gentile world
Being Jewish these days is by all accounts an easier road than it was even just a generation ago.
Cordova agreed that people are more accepting of Jews today, but he worries that his children might suffer from being “often the only Jews in their class,” he said. “I think that is also why we are staying out here and trying to be more active in the temple because we want the kids to feel more active in their faith and we also want them to have those peer relationships with each other. We want them to feel that it’s normal to be Jewish.”
Chaya shares Cordova’s wish to demystify Judaism.
“People don’t know what Judaism is, and when they see that we are just normal people, people who love their community, they understand. They love the fact that there are other people out here like them. That they can get their kids together, they can get kosher and they can do it locally with people that live here.”
But is it difficult to be a minority religion in a largely gentile population such as East County? Is there still a stigma associated with being Jewish?
“Let’s be honest, 50 years ago someone would not even have comfortably asked that question,” said Book. “In 1960, the biggest question was: can we elect a Catholic president and will he take orders from the pope? In the 1930s there were still signs in restaurants and stores that read, ‘No dogs, no Jews.’
“You want to talk about how far we’ve come? Things have certainly changed, but we still have a call to remember and make sure with vigilance that these things do not occur again.”
And in the end, it’s the Jewish people’s long and storied history of survival, faith and commitment that keeps today’s Jews positive and strong. “It’s my sense that our tradition requires us to be hopeful,” said Book. “Being Jewish is an antidote to depression. Somehow the Jews survive and it’s my belief – and hope – that they always will.”
B’nai Torah is located at 301 E. 13th St. in Antioch. For additional information, call 925-754-2545. Chabad of the Delta is located at 288 Mountain View Drive in Brentwood. For more information, call 925-238-8770.
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