Mendocino congregation readies new home in a redwood church

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A cross is still attached to the roof, and the back door has New Testament sayings painted on it. Nevertheless, the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community is already calling this former Baptist church its home.

Last April members of the 200-strong congregation discovered that the redwood structure in Caspar, built circa 1870, was for sale. When their offer of $144,000 was accepted, the community scrambled to raise the funds — which along with inspection fees, title searches and closing fees came to about $165,000 — within 45 days.

Escrow closed the first week in June.

"It's been halcyon from there," Rabbi Margaret Holub said. "We're burrowing our way in."

More than 200 donors — including members, their relatives, friends and generous strangers who read about the synagogue's plight in the April 5 Jewish Bulletin — contributed approximately $125,000. A $40,000 interest-free Hebrew Free Loan — to be paid off within three years — made up the difference.

"The fund-raising began in our community. But the response made us feel like we had a bigger community than we thought," Holub said.

The unaffiliated synagogue's board decided against a mortgage.

"No money, no go," Holub said in April.

The congregation had outgrown the single room it had been renting above the offices of a Mendocino acupuncturist and a chiropractor.

On June 16 Holub hammered the mezuzah into the doorway of the one-story former church, which has a sanctuary, kitchen and a few small classrooms. Following a festive dedication ceremony, the congregation set to work on its new home — beginning with the basics.

"It was a functional building as it was. But there was no heat or water when we moved in. We started with that," Holub said. Next on the agenda was removing the cross from the top of the building.

They're still working on that.

"We can't figure out how to get it down," Holub said. "It's been like a Keystone Cops routine. We called a tree climber — a respectable occupation around these parts — but he couldn't do it. He called [for] a truck with a ladder, but it wasn't tall enough.

"Meanwhile, it's what everyone talks about."

Otherwise, the task of transforming the building from a Baptist church to a synagogue has been surprisingly minimal. There was no stained glass window, no altar to replace.

A fresh coat of paint covers New Testament quotations that were stenciled on the wall. A new back door, Holub said, will replace the old church's "beautiful hippie door."

The older door "is a fabulous specimen, really, but not appropriate for a synagogue. There's a heart with brass flames — and New Testament sayings," Holub said. "We love the door, but we'll give it to someone who wants it."