After 30 years of renting, Shomrei Torah begins building a Santa Rosa home of its own

If every member of Congregation Shomrei Torah holds his or her breath, most of them will be able to fit in the sanctuary.

The 367-family Santa Rosa Reform congregation rents about 900 square feet of space from a small Methodist church. On Saturdays, Shomrei Torah uses the sanctuary. On Sundays, obviously, it’s time for church.

“They have a big cross they use, and they take it down when they’re done,” explained Rabbi George Gittleman, whose congregation has added more than 250 families since 1996.

But Shomrei Torah breaks ground on a new home Sunday.

Gittleman notes the new building will be big enough for the congregation’s religious school to be on-site, and, perhaps most importantly, he won’t have to “make latkes for 200 people” on one residential-sized stove and make do without a social hall. (“We’ve already ruined the carpet here setting up meals.”)

The groundbreaking comes 30 years after 11 Sonoma County families founded the congregation, and following five years of planning and fund-raising. While the congregation originally hoped to purchase an existing building either on its own or in partnership with Christ Church United Methodist, it eventually settled on a 6.25-acre plot in central Santa Rosa, just three miles from its current home.

The congregation purchased the plot last year for $925,000, after raising $4 million of the estimated $6 million deemed necessary. The synagogue will be the first constructed in Sonoma County in four decades.

“As you can understand, Sonoma County property values are ridiculous. But this property is in a wonderful location,” said incoming President Melissa Kort.

And, facing skyrocketing costs in construction materials, the temple will be built in shifts, said Dianne Smith, the synagogue’s outgoing president.

“We are going to build step by step. Grade, stop, assess. We’ll put in the foundation and stop. We’ll assess our cash flow. Then we’ll put up the walls, roof and punch in the doors and windows and lock it. Then we’ll take another look,” she said.

If things go as planned, the congregation will be able to largely inhabit a 10,500-square-foot portion of its new synagogue by 2006. The final plans call for a 22,000-square-foot structure.

Shomrei Torah could have obtained financing and built the temple in one fell swoop, but Smith said she had no plans to “burden the congregation with a loan right now. We can make due. We can hang on for another couple of years.”

For many congregants, financing the temple is like picking up an additional mortgage. Some, including Gittleman, pay off their pledges monthly.

The new site is one of the last undeveloped plots in central Santa Rosa. It was deemed unsuitable for housing because it was too hilly and has a fault line running under a portion of the property.

While the notion of a fault line within yards of a house of worship is alarming, Smith noted the fault is “ancient,” “deep” and “small,” adding that studies have shown it cannot produce much of a jolt. The congregation’s parking lot will be built over the fault, the synagogue will stand a little way off, and roughly 4.5 acres will remain largely undeveloped as something of a nature area.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for sweat equity,” said Gittleman, the congregation’s first full-time rabbi and its spiritual leader since 1996.

“Rather than have the experience I had growing up of someone else building the building and showing up and using it and not knowing what happened, we will be intimately familiar with what it took to build this building. In the long run, we will be stronger for it, better off for it. We will experience our lives in a Jewish way through it.”

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.