Fledgling Half Moon Bay group marking milestones

What makes the Coastside Jewish Community appealing, said founder and president Leslie Sachs, is that it defies categorizing and delivers a message of openness.

"Our whole approach to Judaism is varied," said Sachs, 55, a Brooklyn native who lives in nearby El Granada. "We do some things that are very traditional and some things not traditional at all."

Said board member Grant Ross of Pacifica, "Diversity is what Judaism is and that's how we're approaching it. We're redefining the word progressive."

With 60 member families and 175 households on the mailing list, the congregation in July hired Serena Eisenberg of Berkeley, a student rabbi, to serve as its spiritual leader. Ten students are now enrolled in its religious education classes, which began in the fall. In addition, once a week a Hebrew tutor comes from Sacramento to prepare b'nai mitzvah students.

This year, for the first time in its four-year existence, Coastside held High Holy Day services. Approximately 80 families attended both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

"People felt that it was very meaningful to worship with their neighbors and friends," Eisenberg said. "It was such a communal effort."

Those services were also a dream come true for Sachs. "More and more people have been stepping forward to become involved," she said. "The community is recognizing the viability of this congregation. We're meeting a need and we're here to stay."

The student rabbi's religious and cultural background fits in with the eclectic congregational mix. Eisenberg, 33, has completed two years of a five-year program at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.

This year, the full-time student and mother of three with No. 4 on the way is taking a leave from that program but continuing her rabbinical education at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

A former social worker and attorney, Eisenberg is married to an Israeli who is half Sephardic, half Ashkenazic. Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Eisenberg was involved with a Reform youth group, but she's also been a member of a Conservative synagogue.

She sees Judaism as a "pulling together of eclectic practices."

Shabbat services use a Reform prayerbook, incorporating melodies and commentaries from a variety of sources.

The community pulled together to organize High Holy Day services. But it wasn't easy, according to board member Ross. "We started from scratch."

While Shabbat services are held at Half Moon Bay's Holy Family Episcopal Church, the Community United Methodist Church donated its space for High Holy Day services.

The congregation borrowed the Torah from Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco. Jeff and Rhonda Albom built a satin-lined ark. "I had to use my homeowner's insurance to cover the Torah," Sachs said.

Another congregant volunteered to cover the use of his church with his own insurance policy.

Eisenberg and guest cantor Suzan Katzir of New Mexico pored through a dozen Machzorim to mold the services.

The highlight for Eisenberg turned out to be the tashlich ritual on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. About 40 attendees took a short walk from the church to the ocean and threw breadcrumbs into the water as a symbol of casting off sins.

"The bread crumbs are usually eaten by fish, but we attracted a lot of seagulls," said Eisenberg. "Many coastside residents could identify with the geography. They have a love for the physical beauty of the ocean. It was a spiritual high to go outside and have a sense of relief."

Ross called the High Holy Day effort "an amazing mitzvah. It showed the concept of Jewish community on the coast has become real. All of a sudden, to look around and there's 80 other Jews davening with me. It was thrilling. It felt like the birth of a community."