Napa Jews sow seeds for Synagogue in the Vineyards

Bulletin Staff

The Jews of the Napa Valley have taken this passage from Isaiah literally. They plan to build a new home for their growing synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, among the Napa vineyards.

With more than 10 Jewish vintners, or winery owners, as well as several Jewish wine makers at the hub of the Napa Valley, the proposed Synagogue in the Vineyards seems a natural fit.

But the Synagogue in the Vineyards isn't merely about location, location, location — it's also a way to incorporate the Jewish custom of reaping the fruit from the vine.

"All throughout Jewish history our rituals and traditions have involved wine," said Daniel Marks, a member of Napa's 47-year-old independent Beth Sholom, which will enjoy a rebirth as Synagogue in the Vineyards. "It's part of our cultural heritage."

Phase I of the new synagogue, otherwise known as the visionary stage, has been under way for two years. Entailing community assessment, demographic analysis and idea development, it culminates next weekend with a fund-raiser on Sunday, May 6.

The event, "Jewish Vintners of Napa Valley," is an afternoon and evening program of wine tasting, winery tours, dinner and a silent auction at wineries owned by Napa Valley Jews, all of whom are Beth Sholom members.

It is open to "anyone who loves fine wine and wants to participate in its Jewish element," said Donna Mendelsohn, the synagogue's vice president.

"Nothing has ever been done in the past highlighting Jewish vintners in the Napa Valley," said Ona Marks, who is chairing the event.

Added Mendelsohn: "When most think of wineries, they think of Italians — but Jews have been in the wine business since the beginning of time."

The event begins at 1:30 p.m. in the parking lot of Beth Sholom and will end there at 9. Motor coach transportation will take attendees to the various stops starting with Rudd Vineyards and Winery in Oakville for hors d'oeuvres, a vineyard walk and a wine tasting. Rudd Winery owner Leslie Rudd and Jeff Morgan, wine director of Dean & DeLuca gourmet shop will host this portion of the event.

"The mystical nature of wine makes it more sensitive to ritual prescription than food, even," said Morgan. "You don't have to be kosher to prepare kosher food, but you do need to be kosher to make kosher wine — and even to pour it."

The next stop is Calistoga for a tour of Diamond Creek Vineyards led by owner Al Brounstein.

Finally, attendees will head over to Clos Pegase, where owner Jan Shrem will present his slide show "Bacchanalian History of Wine Seen Through 4,000 Years of Art." A gourmet dinner and silent auction, featuring large bottled wine, will follow.

Upon completion of the Sunday fund-raiser and subsequently, Phase I of Synagogue in the Vineyards, four more phases are mapped out. The entire project will be a three- to six-year process involving everything from finding land to gaining necessary regulatory permits to the synagogue's actual construction, according to Phillip Fram, the synagogue's president.

When discussions on the future of the growing synagogue first started two years ago, they were actually aimed at upgrading the current site. "But we quickly determined the best thing to do was go for a new building," said Fram.

Beth Sholom, he said, is currently housed in a dilapidated building that formerly belonged to the original Napa Valley Public Library. Serving 165 households, or approximately 300 people, it is the only synagogue in the valley, which is home to about 2,400 Jews.

"We want it to be more than strictly a synagogue," he added. "We want it to be a cultural center, incorporating some of the cultural aspects of wine and Judaism."

The actual site for the Synagogue in the Vineyards has not been determined, but the hope is that it will be built on the land of an existing vineyard or on land where a vineyard can easily be cultivated. That way, "it will connect the people with the land and its bounty," said Mendelsohn.

"Nowhere is that epitomized better than here in Napa Valley."