Growing Sonoma congregation sings songs of success

With the opening of Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma, the 73-year-old Sonoma resident has a house of worship in her hometown.

"It's wonderful. It's so much easier to have a group right here in town. And because it's small, there's more personal involvement," Robbins said.

Shir Shalom (Hebrew for "song of peace") formed just 18 months ago. Already it counts about 100 member households, a regular meeting place at the First Congregational Church, and a part-time leader, Rabbi Robert Daum.

Although the congregation is growing quickly, its beginnings were humble.

In August of 1995 Joan Doris wrote a letter to the editor of the Sonoma Index-Tribune inviting other Jews in the area to meet and discuss forming a congregation. More than 60 people attended the meeting.

"We didn't really know there were Jews here," said Dick Newman, Shir Shalom president.

Nonetheless, two hours later a steering committee was formed for the Reform Sonoma Valley Jewish Community, later renamed Congregation Shir Shalom.

"Sonoma Valley Jewish Community is amorphous. It shows no commitment to being a Jewish congregation," Newman said. "Shir Shalom — `Shalom' lets the broader community know we're Jewish. `Shir' tells everyone we're a singing community."

So far, Sonoma's greater community has been "more than welcoming," Newman said.

The First Congregational Church, for instance, changed its answering machine to say, "You have reached the First Congregational Church and Congregation Shir Shalom."

Before the synagogue even formed, the church reached out by inviting local Jews to a community Passover celebration in the spring of 1995.

More recently, members of both congregations met at each other's homes to watch and discuss Bill Moyers' 10-part television series, "Genesis."

In addition, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church hosted High Holy Day services. Sonoma's Lutheran congregation offered its school for classes when Shir Shalom begins its education program.

But that's in the future. Right now the congregation is just trying to establish its needs, capabilities, philosophy and flavor.

"It's a new community and they are finding their way," Daum said. "It's a diverse group; people with all kinds of backgrounds and interests. The challenge for them is to develop a common vision."

Daum, former associate rabbi at San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom, joined Shir Shalom last fall to lead its High Holy Day services. He conducts Shabbat services the third Friday of each month while working on a variety of other projects, including his doctoral dissertation on the origins of rabbinic Judaism.

Often a congregation reflects the personality of its spiritual leader. But Daum is careful to let Shir Shalom congregants form their own plan.

"Given my own experience in the rabbinate, congregation life and Jewish education, I can be a sounding board," he said.

"I can provide information, but they have to decide what they want to be, and I can help them get there."

Because Shir Shalom serves an equal number of retirees and young families, its goals are widespread.

The congregation publishes a monthly newsletter, holds holiday celebrations, maintains 15 committees and has built a sukkah. It has celebrated four baby namings and mourned one funeral.

For the future, members are considering education for both adults and children, forming a Yiddish club and arranging a choral group. The congregation is also working to find a Torah and to become affiliated with the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"It's really remarkable that they have gotten as far as they have as quickly as they have," Daum said. "I think it's a function of a need in this rapidly growing area.

"And of course," he added, "timing is everything. In Sonoma, this is clearly the time."