Wine country synagogue uncorks 50th year celebration

To Lottie Rosenberg, it seems like only yesterday Congregation Beth Sholom moved to downtown Napa. On a pair of flatbed trucks.

The Napa Chamber of Commerce had just donated its old headquarters to the young congregation. All that the temple members had to do was shlep the building three miles to its new site: an empty lot on Elm Street.

“They split it in half,” recalls founding member Rosenberg of that day in 1955. “We brought the two halves through town, then put them back together.”

That’s just one of her many memories as she marks her temple’s golden anniversary. A remodeled Congregation Beth Sholom, still based in that once-divided house, turns 50 in 2004, and members have been celebrating all year long.

The festivities culminate in two big events next month: a dinner-dance May 1 and a special Shabbat service May 14.

“We’re inviting public officials to the service,” notes Stan Press, president of the 162-family congregation. “Yachad, a liturgical singing group from Kansas, is performing and we’ll be honoring past presidents and all the folks that contributed their time and effort to the synagogue.”

Rabbi James Brandt, the first full-time rabbi in Beth Sholom history, is no less excited. “It’s beautiful that this 50th year is such a year of transition,” he says. “It corresponds with a time of great growth and re-evaluation on the part of the community.”

Brandt joined “CBS,” as ist is known by congregents last year after the congregation elected to affiliate with the Reform movement. This followed years of visiting rabbis — Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — all essentially conducting Conservative services for a diverse membership. With his installation, he says, “For the first time, a Jewish address in Napa is open and staffed during the week.”

Ninety-two-year-old Julian Weidler, another CBS founding member, recalls the early days of Napa Valley Jewish life. Very early. The San Francisco native moved to Napa in 1936 to work in the garment industry. He remembers fondly how he and other Napa Jews would meet Friday nights in the upstairs living quarters of a local plumbing business.

The German-born Rosenberg also recalls those early days when a small group of Napa Jews — not surprisingly dubbed the Napa Jewish Group — met regularly for services in each other’s homes. By the early 1950s, they were meeting at the Napa Women’s Club. “We got to the point,” she says, “where we were asking ourselves, “Why are we sending our kids to Vallejo for religious school?'”

Thus, Congregation Beth Sholom was born — the first synagogue in that part of Napa Valley. Rosenberg’s late husband George became the congregation’s unofficial “rabbi,” expertly serving as lay religious leader for many years.

Over the decades, as Napa Valley grew economically, CBS grew along with it, expanding its early childhood and adult education programs.

But aligning with the Reform movement and bringing in Rabbi Brandt ranks among the most significant milestones in the congregation’s first half-century. So far, according to Press, it seems to have been a smart move. “People are smiling,” he says. “Those that avail themselves of what’s going on [at the temple] are happy.”

And while this may be a time for a satisfying look back, Weidler, a former CEO who despite his nine decades still works every day at the Napa Valley Development Corporation, says, “I’m looking forward to the future.”

Congregation Beth Sholom’s 50th anniversary party, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 1, at Napa Valley Country Club. The 50th anniversary Shabbat service, 7 p.m, May 14, at Congregation Beth Sholom, 1455 Elm St., Napa. Information: (707) 253-7305

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.