Petalumas historic center marks its 75th birthday

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Sol Fishman, 89, remembers going to the Eagle's Hall in Petaluma for High Holy Days services. Early in the last century, the Jews in this then-rural town 35 miles north of San Francisco could take their pick of meeting places: The Danish Hall and the Masonic Hall were both favored venues.

But by 1925, the Jewish community of "The Egg Basket of the World" had a building to call its own. Approximately 200 Petaluma families pooled their resources and the Jewish Community Center — commonly called "the center" — was born.

Since the Jews of this small town were largely secular, the center served as more of a social gathering place than a synagogue. But one small room was designated for "the shul," in deference to the handful of religious families who wouldn't have contributed to the building otherwise.

Tomorrow, the old-timers will gather to reminisce about the center — now called Congregation B'nai Israel — at a 75th anniversary celebratory dinner. Plenty of "newcomers" will be there as well.

Despite their rural surroundings, the Jewish community of Petaluma was made up of people who strongly identified with their heritage.

"It was enough of a Jewish presence here to make it a viable community," said B'nai Israel's current rabbi, Leah Kurtz Sudran. "It just takes a few strong people to keep the community together."

Leon Barlas, who at 85 is not the oldest member of the community, but has lived there the longest, moved to Petaluma with his parents when he was just 3. "We had no running water, no gas, no electricity and no toilet," he recalled. Barlas' father was the community shochet, and killed chickens for those who kept kosher.

"Somebody would go to San Francisco once a week to bring back orders for those who wanted kosher meat," said Barlas. "It was before the highway. They had to go by train. It was a big deal to do that."

Later, Barlas became one of the most prominent chicken ranchers. "They used to call me 'Mr. Chicken of Petaluma,'" he said.

"The reason so many Jews became farmers was because it was hard for a Jewish person to get another job," said David Polonsky, 87, whose family also raised chickens. "They came here, and could be more or less independent."

If the Petaluma Jewish community was once known for its chicken farmers, in the '20s and '30s it also became known for its politics. A community of proud secular farmers, mostly of Eastern European origin, the Jews had a lot in common ideologically with kibbutzniks. Many of them shared the same ideas with their Israeli counterparts, who believed in redemption through working the soil. In the late '40s, there was an influx of Holocaust survivors to the area, and they, too, became chicken farmers.

Petaluma was often a stop for Jewish luminaries traveling through California. Whether it was a musician, singer, artist, author or politician, "Petaluma was always their first stop; they could perform on Friday night because we were a secular community," said Fishman.

One of the more famous guests to pass through was Golda Meir. Lil Krulevitch, now 80, remembers the prime minister-to-be visiting her house, well before Israel became a state.

Krulevitch's parents, also chicken farmers, were ardent Labor Zionists, supporting the Pioneer Women, Histadrut and all the Zionist organizations.

Krulevitch described her childhood as happy, with her parents attending meetings at the center almost every night of the week.

"I remember waking up in the center; we had no baby sitters. Sometimes, my brother and I would wake up in the car. You wouldn't dare do that now."

Gerry Lipton, 72, recalled that after World War II, when many servicemen and women returned home, the young people had a club called the Havadim. Lipton met her husband, Sid, there.

There was also a Jewish Folk Chorus, and chapters of national organizations such as Workmen's Circle, B'nai B'rith, Hadassah and Pioneer Women.

For the most part, there were more women's organizations than men's, and they were more active. "The women were all gung-ho, while the men liked to see the other men there to gab and talk about eggs and chickens and whatever," said Ethel Forman, 77.

For most Jews in Petaluma, their social lives revolved around the center. "Everything was happening at the Jewish center," recalled Lipton.

"It was used sometimes eight nights a week, if there is such a thing," said Fishman. "Often two organizations would meet the same night at the same time."

But the 1950s and McCarthyism would change all that. In addition to the Zionists, socialists and Yiddishists, there was a strong contingent of Communists in Petaluma. One member of the Communist Party, Sol Nitzberg, was tarred and feathered for his pro-unionizing activities.

When the House Committee on Un-American Activities began its investigations of Communist activists, the right-wingers in Petaluma, i.e., the non-Communists, were afraid of being guilty by association. They banned the left-wingers from the center, many of the founding members among them.

Krulevitch, whose father tried to mediate between the two sides, remembers it as a difficult time. "So many of [those who were kicked out] were my friends," she said. While Krulevitch managed to maintain her friendships through it all, others stopped speaking to one another. "I thought it was wrong, but it happened. McCarthy was evil."

In the 1960s, as the chicken farmers began to be slowly bought out by bigger corporations and younger families moved in to the community, it became clear that the center with the tiny shul would no longer meet the needs of an American-born, more religious community.

So in 1976, the center became B'nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue. The difficult times for the synagogue were not quite over, though. In 1997, its rabbi, Sidney Isaac Goldenberg, resigned after only a few months, after he was charged with molesting a young girl.

With last year's hiring of Sudran — the first woman to head B'nai Israel — the congregation was anxious to put that chapter of their history behind.

And it has. In fact, although it is more of a synagogue than a Jewish center, Sudran said in her short time there, it has grown from 87 to 120 households. And now, she is trying to recapture some of the center's original spirit.

"We are trying to become a center again, our identity is returning to the original identity," she said. The synagogue wants to appeal to those in the community who still consider themselves secular Jews, with plans for a game night and book group in the works. "We're trying to develop activities important for people who have a cultural, social affiliation with Judaism, and make this the center again."

Still, with its long history, the congregation is "very homey, and haimish," said Irving Newman, 83, a longtime leader in the Jewish community as well as the synagogue. And that is not lost on the "newcomers."

Lenore Kostelnik, who has lived in the area for 23 years and has been a member of the synagogue for 12, said the Petaluma Jewish community is like "being in an extended family."

While she didn't know of the history when she first arrived, Kostelnik has come to appreciate it. What impressed her most was the way the Holocaust survivors came and were integrated into the community.

"The community opened up to help them get started on these chicken farms, and lent them money just on a handshake. They're still willing to give of themselves, not just to the synagogue, but to the entire community."

Said Sudran: "These are people who look to the past as a way to give them guidance for the future. They feel they've learned a great deal from their history, and find a lot of meaning through the history they've shared." Despite the conflicts, she said, "This building has been center of Jewish life since 1925, and there's tr

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."