Synagogue in tiny Caspar becomes center of town life and North Coast Yiddishkeit

The nondenominational synagogue opened its doors last summer and has since become a meeting place for more than just the Jewish community.

In the bar's absence, Caspar's 100 residents have held meetings in the synagogue over the fate of their town, most of which is owned by one man. And he wants to sell.

With coastal real estate at a premium and developers and filmmakers on the prowl, the residents want first dibs on their historic hamlet, just outside Mendocino, when it goes on the block.

"I might speculate that seeing us buy the shul helps them to say, `Hey, you can do things like buy a town,'" said the synagogue's rabbi, Margaret Holub.

The congregation of about 200 bought and renovated the building, an 1870s-era redwood church, with help from Bay Area donors and other well-wishers. The congregants didn't have the financial ammunition to do it alone.

Now, the synagogue is one of only a few properties in central Caspar that's not for sale, according to Judy Tarbell, a resident and co-owner of Caspar's Black Bear Publishing.

Tarbell said she enjoys the cultural activities at the synagogue — book readings, musical events and photographic essays — and feels welcome to attend even the religious events. The recent landscaping, she added, provided a nice facelift to that corner of the town.

"It's all very welcoming and nice."

The building may be a hub for Casparites, but it is most central to the lives of its congregants. After eight years with the congregation, Holub says she doesn't miss the old days of trucking the Torah over country roads from homes to meeting halls and back again.

And congregants enjoy a permanent spot for a new one-room Torah school program, adult b'nai mitzvah classes, services and social events.

"Before, we had to rent a hall for activities for more than 20 people," said synagogue board member Mina Cohen. "Now all we have to do is schedule the activity, not hunt around for a place to have it."

The central location is easier for those who come from Point Arena, an hour and a half to the south; Westport, 45 minutes to the north; and Comptche, 30 miles east.

Despite their far-flung addresses, Holub says her 20-year-old congregation is a tight-knit bunch, many of whom left New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to embrace a back-to-the-land lifestyle.

They deliver each other's babies and share the breast-feeding. Some exchange produce from their own gardens or give vegetables from the community garden to the needy. But while they've left urban living behind, they've not forgotten the ties of culture and community. They care for ailing members and recite the Kaddish at the graves of their elders.

When a father of three died a premature death, congregants groomed his young sons, one by one, for their b'nai mitzvah.

The new building puts a public face on the community's cult of kindness and good will.

"It makes [congregants] feel proud that we pulled it off," Holub said of the synagogue purchase. She also acknowledged a groundswell of financial support from the S.F.-based Koret Foundation and individual donors.

"It was like we were being welcomed and honored by the rest of the Jewish world."

The fund-raising experience has some members talking about soliciting more grants to hire teachers and reach out to small unaffiliated Jewish communities to the north.

Added Holub, "There are a lot of Jews here. Having a community here is just as important as anywhere else. We all want to lead meaningful lives.

"It's never mattered to me that there needs to be a building with a star," she said, "but it's important for people to lead a Jewish life.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.