Hands and feet of God build new Santa Rosa synagogue

Ever heard of a dig bar? The members of Congregation Shomrei Torah sure have.

For years, congregants climbed a fallow Santa Rosa hilltop, swinging dig bars to gouge out rotted roots and tree stumps. They cleared away tons of brush and garbage. They battled poison oak. As Rabbi George Gittleman puts it, they labored daily to be “the hands and feet of God.”

After eight years of fundraising, building and shvitzing, and after 32 years of sharing space with Christ Church United Methodist Church, Congregation Shomrei Torah finally has a home to call its own.

“Most of us are still in awe and stunned,” says congregant Diane Smith of the striking new 11,000-square-foot structure. “This little synagogue came forward voluntarily. We put up fences, we planted thousands of plants. Everyone tried so hard.”

The new shul officially opened its doors April 29, when hundreds of congregants marched through the streets of Santa Rosa, Torahs in hand, from Christ Church United Methodist to the gleaming hilltop facility on Bennet Valley Road. “The day we marched,” says Smith, “everybody felt they had a piece of the success.”

For the 380-household Reform congregation, this was a day long in coming. Throughout most of their history together, Shomrei Torah and the Methodist church had a cordial tenant-landlord arrangement. Sometimes, as the congregation grew, the relationship seemed more like that of college roommates.

Recalls Gittleman, “We learned a lot from them about becoming a welcoming congregation. But we outgrew [the church] and were using every available space there. Scheduling was always a challenge and we’d have regular train wrecks. We wanted a Jewish space.”

Smith, an anthropology professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, chaired the campaign committee charged with raising funds for a new building. She says the congregation came through when it counted.

“We had professional [fundraising] help in the beginning,” she recalls. “We were told a third would give willingly, a third grudgingly and a third not at all. But when [congregants] got the ‘fair share’ concept, everyone realized they could give something.”

The initial estimate came in at $6 million, an amount Smith, Gittleman and the committee diligently raised. “We were so lucky,” says Smith. “[The rabbi] rolled up his sleeves and went on [fundraising] calls with us. We all learned to talk about money, and the rabbi would reassure us we were doing holy work.”

There were snags. The site had been mistakenly mapped as an endangered salamander habitat, and a fruitless federal search for the critters slowed construction. Costs rose, but the congregation stood fast. And, on most weekends, they also stooped to conquer.

“It was happy chaos,” says Smith of the army of volunteers that prepped and re-landscaped the site. “We’d ask 25 people to come and tell them what tools to bring, then we’d have 100 people show up. This was a garbage dumpsite, but once we took the mountains of garbage down, we had a 360-degree view of the Santa Rosa plain. We didn’t know it was going to be beautiful.”

For the site, architect Craig Roland designed a dynamic one-story structure with curved walls, stained glass and high ceilings. Classrooms, offices, a large sanctuary/social hall all provide the multiple-use spaces the congregation has long needed.

“The volunteer effort to raise the money and then husband this project has been phenomenal,” says Gittleman. “The leadership team has weathered so many storms, and literally given up parts of years of their lives without falter and fail. This is the most phenomenal thing I’ve seen in terms of community-building.”

There’s more to do, says Smith. The congregation still has a sizeable mortgage, and more volunteer labor will be needed to keep costs down. The rabbi says the entire project has been a leap of faith.

On the flip side, Shomrei Torah congregants have a strong sense of personal ownership of their new shul. And it shows.

Says Smith, “I see parents now telling children, ‘Hey, don’t run there’ or ‘Don’t slam that door.'”

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.