Emanu-El bridging gap for Marin County Jews

Talk to Gary Cohn about Marin County's Jewish population, and the executive director of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El will tell you that many of these residents either are, or used to be, members of Emanu-El.

So, the almost-1500-family congregation doesn't think it's treading into hostile territory by expanding its programming in Marin County.

"We currently have about 250 families that are members who live in Marin, and another 500 there that used to be members," said Cohn.

Furthermore, he said, "as word got out that we were looking to expand programming, others came forward who were not affiliated. We've also had a number affiliate with us recently because they know we're expanding up there."

"Up there" means the Mill Valley area, where many ex-Emanu-El members have moved.

For several years now, the San Francisco Reform congregation has held Hebrew school classes there for its Marin County families, with parents driving their kids into San Francisco for religious school on weekends.

"The bridge on weekday afternoons has become an enormous barrier," said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior rabbi of Emanu-El. "People say, 'How can I possibly stay a member?'"

While Marin County is home to a Reform temple, Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, and a Conservative shul, Kol Shofar in Tiburon, the two are "both double the sizes they ever intended to be," according to Cohn.

So Emanu-El has been helping to fill the gap.

While it currently holds a Shabbat service in Marin once a quarter, the temple is looking to begin holding one monthly, said Cohn. Also, a quarterly Havdallah service will start. More of Emanu-El's activities for the entire congregation will be held in Marin, such as the family picnic for Sukkot.

Adult education classes are in the planning stages for Marin, and the Marin task force of the synagogue is looking at land to buy, if the perfect situation comes about. So far, the task force has considered several pieces of land.

"Nothing has come forward yet," said Cohn. "If the perfect opportunity came along, we would upscale our approach, but we're not there 24 hours a day looking for space."

"We currently use the Marin Headlands for city kids who go for programs," said Pearce, adding that one possible idea is to purchase a place that could be used for retreats for the synagogue's membership.

Another possibility is to increase usage of the Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church in Mill Valley, where Emanu-El already meets.

Rabbis Michael Barenbaum of Rodef Sholom and Lavey Derby of Kol Shofar both declined to comment.

And it seems that Emanu-El's plans across the Golden Gate Bridge will continue.

"Two or three years down the road, we hope to have the space to do our Jewish preschool," said Cohn. "At the JCC in San Rafael, there is an excellent program, but it's always sold out. There's a real demand for Jewish preschool space, and we'll provide that down the road."

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."