Monument offers Gilroy Jews sense of community

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A small monument recently installed by members of a Gilroy congregation is having a big impact on Jews who live south of Silicon Valley.

"The fact that it is sort of the one visible symbol of the presence of Jews in our geographic area is, I think, significant," said Michael Oshan, incoming president of the 52-family Congregation Emeth, which draws most members from around Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister.

Oshan was referring to the memorial gravestone commemorating victims of war and persecution that was placed in the small Jewish section of Gavilan Hills Cemetery. Made of white granite, the memorial has a Star of David carved at the top. It bears the inscriptions "In memory of the innocent" and "May their memory be for a blessing" along with the congregation's name and date.

Dedicated on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the memorial is evidence of a growing presence of Jews in the communities south of San Jose. "It sort of gives us some sense of permanence," said Oshan, a founding member of the 25-year-old congregation that numbered only about a dozen participants when it was first organized. "It used to be there really weren't any Jews around."

The dedication also comes as the congregation is seeking a permanent location for a synagogue. Its services, held two weekends a month, now are conducted in the fellowship hall of a Presbyterian church in Gilroy and at a private school in Morgan Hill.

Though the arrangement has worked well enough until now, Oshan said congregants would like a place of their own. Currently, he noted, the congregation must store the Torah in a closet after each use.

"We're hoping to have something by September," said Oshan, a vocational and rehabilitation counselor who lives just outside of Gilroy.

He and other members of Congregation Emeth also hope the future will include more interfaith events like the one it held on April 13 when the memorial was dedicated.

The unveiling was proceeded by a mile-long "Walk for Tolerance" through Gilroy that started at St. Mary's Church. About 150 people from Emeth and 16 local churches participated, according to Yitzhak Miller, a student rabbi and spiritual leader of the Reform congregation.

Noting that the event fell on a weekend when Mideast protest rallies were erupting around the country, "here was little old Gilroy having a walk for tolerance," said Miller. "People were very supportive."

At the dedication, participants stood in silence for a half hour and then stepped forward for a private prayer and placed polished stones on the monument. The Jewish portion of the cemetery was opened just four or five years ago, also by members of the congregation.

Leading the effort for the memorial was Stuart Blumberg, who serves on the congregation's board and is another one of its founding members. His mother, Henrietta Lebow, was the first person buried in the Jewish cemetery.

Blumberg, a 71-year-old retired English teacher, said he wanted the memorial to make a statement for innocent victims throughout time.

"Like all Jewish congregations, we have a Yom HaShoah observance every year," said Blumberg, who lives in Morgan Hill. "I thought it was a symbol of man's inhumanity to man and I wanted to observe that."

The Holocaust, he said, "touches not just Jewish people, but all people."

Blumberg described the mood of the day as "beautiful," particularly because it was set against the tense backdrop of demonstrations elsewhere in response to the continuing cycle of violence in the Middle East.

"There was certainly a lot of anxiety leading up to the walk," said Miller. Parents called, wondering if the event would be safe for their youngsters and whether security plans were in place.

He described the interfaith event as both peaceful and powerful. "We haven't had anything like this before," he said, echoing hopes that the event would be the first of many such gatherings in the future.