Silicon Valleys influx of Jews boosts 20-year-old synagogue

The congregation that, in its early years, traipsed from rented home to rented home often enough to jokingly adopt the nickname "Have Torah, Will Travel," finally hit the big two-o.

Congregation Shir Hadash of Los Gatos celebrated its 20th year — and 10th under Rabbi Melanie Aron — in style with a black-tie auction and bash last month. It plans a "Sermon in Song" with Cantor Cory Winter — formely of San Francisco's Congregation Ner Tamid — who will be visiting from the Chicago area Feb. 12.

A lovely new synagogue on temple-owned land, packed with a large, ever-expanding congregation, was nothing more than a dream throughout the early days of the Reform congregation. Founded in 1980 by former members of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, the infant congregation aspired to do things in a new way, starting with its choice of a name, which translates literally to "A New Song."

"The original concept was it was going to be a very open and democratic congregation," recalled Jean Bronstein, a past president of the congregation and a member since its inception.

"We didn't want decisions to be made in vacuums behind closed doors by a select group of people," she said, adding that the format is still "very open."

"None of our board meetings is held behind closed doors…We still value the input we get from the congregation, and take it very seriously."

With the congregation's mushrooming growth, maintaining a feeling of intimacy has become a priority. When Shir Hadash was born in a Los Gatos living room in 1980, it consisted of only a handful of families. Gallivanting between a variety of rented locations including spaces in a local YMCA, Jewish community center and a Presbyterian church, the congregation quickly swelled to 100 households.

By the time Shir Hadash bought a former school administrative building in the mid-1980s, the tally fluctuated between 100 and 300 households. And while it was a relief to escape the transitory nature of rented backrooms and converted gymnasiums, Shir Hadash's first permanent home was far from ideal.

The building was noticeably cramped, but nonetheless gave the congregants a "do-it-yourself" feel: They converted the cafeteria into a sanctuary and constructed their own bimah. The congregation finally raised enough funds to begin construction of a temple in 1997. The old building, formerly the home of the entire operation, now houses the religious school classrooms and a smattering of offices — a much more feasible arrangement.

The congregation's 1997 upgrade wasn't an extravagance, but a necessity. A decade-and-a-half after anteing up the money to buy its own wee scrap of land, membership currently consists of more than 560 households, having grown steadily for the past 10 years.

"Demographics don't hurt," Aron said chuckling, attempting to explain the augmented size of her congregation over the past decade. "The Jewish population has grown tremendously over the past 15 years as people moved into Silicon Valley."

Thanks to the gargantuan number of young families flocking to the valley, the average Shir Hadash member is only 38 years old. As a result, the congregation has actively recruited older members of the Jewish community. ("Moses said go with the old and the young," the rabbi quipped.)

While Silicon Valley's population has mushroomed since it became the mecca of the new economy, constructing the new synagogue was more than an "If you build it, they will come" proposition. A large pool of potential members isn't the sole reason for the temple's success, said a staff member.

"We are a very inclusive community. We are very accepting of people from all walks of life," said Linda Allen, the temple's public relations officer and a congregant for 14 years. "Non-Jewish spouses can always feel welcome here and are able to participate in many ways."

Aron estimates that two-thirds of the students in the congregation's religious school have at least one non-Jewish grandparent, and feels it is important not to stigmatize children growing up in interfaith homes.

"We have to make these families able to feel comfortable and welcome, and not have to lie about who they are," she said. "We're not going to get hysterical if the child celebrates Christmas at a grandparent's house. We have to find ways to help families find their Jewish connections."

Another reason for the congregation's continued growth and prosperity may be Aron herself. A popular and respected spiritual leader, congregants describe her as "dynamic," "wise" and "remarkable."

"She took us from the stage of being a start-up congregation to helping us stabilize and become a mature, functioning organization," said past president Bronstein.

"Every year the rabbi teaches an introduction to Hebrew she calls 'Instant Hebrew.' She makes a bet that if you come to these three sessions and really do the studying that if you can't read basic letters, she owes you an ice cream cone. I don't think she's ever had to pay one out," she added.

As Shir Hadash enters its third decade and Aron her second at the helm, she sees expanded adult education as critical to future success.

"The amount we spend on the religious school is 30 times as much as we spend on adult education," she said. "There's a reason and a need for that, but, on the other hand, education of adults is very important.

"When our children come on Sunday and see a roomful of adults studying and talking, they'll see Jewish education as a lifelong preoccupation and not punishment."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.