Nascent Sonoma Jewish group reaches out with forums, films

As part of an effort to embrace Sonoma County's far-flung and often-unaffiliated Jews, a year-old community group is officially reaching out to gays and lesbians, singles and interfaith couples this fall.

"I don't think any of these groups are specifically kept out of the community, but they are not specifically welcomed either," said Carolyn Metz, executive director of the group known as the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County.

"This is an effort to break down some barriers."

The outreach, in the form of three forums, is just one part of the JCA's work to pull together the county's dispersed and sometimes isolated Jewish population.

It's estimated that 10,000 to 12,000 Jews live in the vast county, which is more than 20 times the size of San Francisco. The Jewish intermarriage rate there has been estimated at as high as 60 percent, Metz said.

"We don't have enough resources either in money or human energy to have our little fiefdoms. We need ways to collaborate and share what we have to the best benefit of all," said Metz, who works part time out of the JCA's rented space in Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami.

"It's not easy here. It's a very assimilated community."

In its first year of existence, the group has kicked off a Jewish film festival and the outreach forums. The JCA has also taken over a previously existing Jewish senior program, a children's summer day camp and an annual community festival.

It's not that Jewish organizations don't already exist in this county.

About 800 households belong to the county's five congregations. There is a Jewish day school with about 30 students, two synagogue-based preschools and a branch office of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

Grassroots groups are also active, such as the Russian River Jewish Community and JEWELS: Jewish Lesbians of Sonoma County.

Still, these organizations have not managed to draw in the vast majority of the county's Jews who remain unaffiliated. That's where the JCA hopes to make a difference.

"The goal of the organization is to provide for the entirety of the Jewish community, not just those affiliated with synagogues," said Michael Mundell, president of the JCA's 23-member board and a Santa Rosa resident.

The JCA's social, educational and cultural activities include the second annual Sonoma County Jewish Film Series. Opening night on Sept. 18 in Santa Rosa's Lakeside Cinema drew about 200, Metz said.

The festival's three remaining films will be screened this fall: "The Dybbuk" on Oct. 30, "Judgment at Nuremberg" on Nov. 20 and "Like a Bride" on Dec. 18.

Other JCA activities include publishing a semiannual brochure to all Jewish classes and programming in the county, as well as coordinating a monthly meeting for the congregational and agency leaders.

This year's Simcha Sunday has been postponed. The 10th annual community festival, usually held in autumn, will instead take place in May 1998 so that it can be combined with a celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary. In past years the event has drawn as many as 1,200.

Friendship Circle, an ongoing senior program incorporated into the JCA, includes a twice-monthly lunch with a speaker, a "stretch and kvetch" exercise class and an autobiographical writing class.

Outreach to gays and lesbians, singles and interfaith couples is JCA's most ambitious new program.

The first forum, "Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish," took place on Sept. 28. "Single and Jewish: A Sense of Belonging" is scheduled for Nov. 5, and "Interfaith Couples: Creating an Effective Bridge to the Jewish Community" is set for Dec. 7.

The series, called "Creating a Welcoming Community: Dialogues to Reflect and Shape New Realities," is co-sponsored by the Sonoma branch of the JFCS.

Paul Klopper, chair of the JCA adult-education committee that created the forums, said his group wanted to move beyond what area synagogues were doing.

He believes this is the first time Sonoma County's organized Jewish community has officially embraced these groups of Jews. And he believes the effort was long overdue.

"We want to work on what brings us together, rather than what sets us apart," he said.

The idea for the JCA cropped up about two years ago when Sonoma County Jews first found out the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was planning to close its Santa Rosa satellite office.

"There were community activities that were no longer going to happen without the federation," Metz said, citing Simcha Sunday as one example.

The federation shut its office in April 1996, despite a chorus of protests in Sonoma County. The JCA was incorporated that June.

Despite the community's original reaction, Klopper now calls the federation's decision to close the office a "blessing in disguise" because it led him and others to get involved for the first time.

JCA's $200,000 projected 1997-98 budget comes from a variety of sources: local donations, service fees, and grants from the federation, the federation's endowment fund and the Koret Foundation.

Though Mundell hopes that Jews who get a taste of communal life will eventually want to join a synagogue, he also wants to offer Jews an opportunity to get involved even if they don't.

"Because we are local, grassroots and are working to build our own community," he said, "it has brought people out and gotten them excited."