Large synagogue urges its congregants to start throwing block parties

As San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom grew to more than 1,000 families, members were finding it harder to meet people and maintain a feeling of community.

So two years ago, the only Reform synagogue in Marin came up with a plan to improve the situation, starting a project called "neighborhood programming."

"People join a synagogue for the religious learning, but they also join because they want to be part of a bigger community," said the congregation's program director, Moji Javid. "But they don't want to get lost in that community. People love the temple. But it is so large and people wanted more intimacy."

Javid was hired last August to help realize the neighborhood programming plan. Javid and a committee divided the congregation's membership into seven geographic regions, six in Marin and one in Sonoma County. Members from each group organize and attend two or three events each year.

"The idea is to give them a way to meet each other," said Javid, who noted that more neighborhood programming will be added this year.

Within each group, members have organized such events as havdallah potlucks, Shabbat dinners, picnics and hikes. Typically, 15 to 60 people will attend an event organized by a neighborhood group.

"There's a balance between just being social and having a Jewish context," said Ian Altman, who chairs the neighborhood committee on the Rodef Sholom board. "We try to incorporate both."

Susan and Joe Berland, who are members of one of the two San Rafael groups, hosted a havdallah potluck at their home for about 20 people.

"It was an opportunity to meet Jewish people in the neighborhood," Susan Berland said. "There's no Jewish neighborhood in the Bay Area, so it's somewhat hard to meet Jewish people."

Altman agreed. "Many of our parents and grandparents grew up in Jewish neighborhoods and it was a given that you socialize with other Jews. In our spread-out society, it doesn't happen naturally."

For Altman, socializing and developing friendships with other members is important. "I've met a lot of people, and I get a sense we're building community within Rodef," he said. "I like that I can discuss things from a Jewish perspective — whether it's `who's the best bar mitzvah caterer' or more serious questions, like `how to raise Jewish kids in a very assimilated region.'"

Helping newer members meet people was also a consideration. "Our goal is for every synagogue member to know at least three people and recognize people from their neighborhood whenever they come to the synagogue," said Altman. "We're able to accomplish that with a few events each year."