Rural Judaism is a discovery for urban escapees in Cotati

Stories of Jews living on vast, rural tracts of land may bring up images of Lorne Green and Michael Landon in "Bonanza."

Yet such a situation exists far closer to home — and reality — in Sonoma County, where Jews have long been part of the pioneer mix.

On the town plaza of Cotati — nestled between Petaluma and Rohnert Park — sits the only Reconstructionist congregation from Southern California to Portland, Ore., with both a rabbi and a synagogue.

Founded in 1982, Congregation Ner Shalom serves Jews from San Rafael to Healdsburg, from Sonoma to Bodega Bay to Forestville. Situated in a town of some 6,700, it draws congregants from a 1,500-square-mile chunk of land, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

"We often use the term we laughingly call 'rural Judaism,'" said Rabbi Elisheva Sachs, a native San Franciscan. "People who live in the country have a different sort of attitude toward the Jewish community. I think, more than people in the city, there's a feeling that you really want to be part of a synagogue, and not just because it's the thing to do. It's harder, you do have to make an effort to connect."

Several of Ner Shalom's congregants describe Cotati as a warm, nonjudgmental little town, a throwback to the days of main streets and small shops amid a sea of suburban housing and minivans. Many of these congregants consider themselves refugees of the big city, and, in some cases, big city Judaism. To them the Reconstructionist congregation's open, egalitarian — yet traditional — atmosphere is a breath of fresh air.

"It's very spiritual, a real feeling of community. I've never felt that before anywhere," said Ner Shalom board member and L.A. escapee Pam Pepper. "You know that when you come, you're not judged, you really feel the warmth. It's family."

Because of the geographically disparate nature of many of its congregants, Ner Shalom recently established "caring circles." On short notice, groups of congregants can be mobilized to sit shiva, deliver food to incapacitated companions or pass around news. In one instance, a young father couldn't get time off work immediately following the birth of his child, so the local caring circle dropped by to lend the mother a hand.

"That was entirely the congregation's idea. I really had nothing to do but say, 'Oh goodness, you guys are so brilliant!'" said Sachs, who became the synagogue's spiritual leader in June. "I think that speaks very much to the nature of our community."

Drawing congregants from an area the size of a feudal estate isn't Ner Shalom's only claim to fame. After all, how many other synagogues can say they're housed in a former nightclub?

Erected in 1905, the synagogue is one of the oldest structures in the city — but it certainly wasn't always a house of worship. Originally, it served as the local women's club and later a farmers' and ranchers' meeting house, but many Cotati residents (and Ner Shalom congregants) best remember it as the former Cotati Cabaret, a popular venue to drink, dance, party and catch a rock 'n' roll show throughout the 1970s.

"A number of us used to go there to dance through the night. Now we go there to pray through the night," said Robert Fields, Ner Shalom board president. "It's a very pretty building; it still has the original virgin redwood. The 2-by-4s are actually 2-inches-by-4-inches thick. You don't see that kind of timber anymore."

In addition to housing the sanctuary, the former cabaret also serves as an education center. More than 70 children are enrolled in Ner Shalom's Sunday school. The congregation also runs a b'nai mitzvah program and family chavurah school.

"The most important thing to me is to help reinforce a sense of Jewish identity in an environment where it is not reinforced," said Gesher Calmenson, Ner Shalom's education director. "There's nothing negative about the school situation, but they don't give kids an understanding of themselves as Jews.

"So the ramification is that they need a place that helps them learn to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish," he added. "I feel a lot of my job is providing an acculturating experience."

Sachs points to Calmenson's educational programs as one of the reasons membership has jumped from under 100 households two years ago to almost 140 today. Yet while Sachs doesn't mention it, she, too, may be one of the reasons for the rise in attendance.

"She's funny and warm and you don't ever get the sense she's not listening to you," said Pepper of Sachs. "Her classes are great, they make you want to learn more. She knows how to make those classes fascinating instead of snoozers, because, done wrong, it could be really dull stuff.

"She's a great storyteller. As my son would say, 'Eli would never put me to sleep.'"

Sachs, who earned a doctorate in biology from Yale prior to attending the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, has her eyes on the future. Among her bigger plans is the construction of the first mikvah in the North Bay.

"There are lots of uses for it," said the rabbi. "It really would be wonderful to have that kind of resource up here. For all the Jews in the county, not just us."

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.