A synagogue grows in Santa Cruz

Reaching 13 is a turning point in any Jew’s life. For Congregation Kol Tefillah in Santa Cruz, its 13th birthday wasn’t any different.

“It is our bar mitzvah year and the congregation has come of age,” said Kol Tefillah member Rabbi Shalom Bochner of Santa Cruz Hillel. “We have taken steps that a 1-year-old can’t.”

For the last 12 years, members of Kol Tefillah met in a rented sanctuary at Unity Temple every Saturday. Congregants arrived early to bring in supplies and set up for services, watched the time closely during Shabbat prayers and hauled out their Judaica — all within their allotted four-hour time slot.

Now, on its 13th birthday, Conservative Congregation Kol Tefillah is growing up. The congregation moved into its own full-time home at 200 Washington St. in downtown Santa Cruz on May 20.

A procession traveled from Unity Temple to bring the congregation’s three Torah scrolls to their new home, and mezuzahs were affixed to the doors to mark the new space sacred. And members celebrated on Shavuot with an all-night study session — their first one as a full congregation.

“There is unanimous excitement. Our families have seen our new space and feel very comfortable,” said Ilan Benjamin, president of Kol Tefillah.

Kol Tefillah is a unique congregation in many ways. It is the only Conservative synagogue in Santa Cruz. It has no rabbi, and there is no paid staff. Membership is small, consisting of about 50 families who joined together to provide more traditional holiday and Shabbat services and a Conservative Jewish education for their children.

Instead of a rabbi, synagogue members volunteer to organize and lead services. Benjamin said that almost 50 percent of members attend services every Shabbat.

Education is taken seriously, and everyone is encouraged to learn and participate. Members hold classes to teach other members Hebrew, Jewish history, chanting and common prayers. As these members learn, they then guide new members in the learning process. The congregation regularly hosts guest lecturers. There is a strong sense of pride in the members’ active participation.

“Everyone in the Kol Tefillah community has a role. It is a congregation of leaders,” Bochner said.

This active membership is what got Kol Tefillah into its new home. In a questionnaire mailed to congregants two years ago, more than 70 percent of members agreed to increase their dues two-fold to pay for the new space.

“People agreed to double their dues, knowing it would more than double in the reward of a full-time space,” Bochner said.

Once the right venue was found, congregants pitched in to paint, decorate and prepare the new sanctuary.

With its new home, Kol Tefillah families look forward to a place where all the community’s programs are under one roof. A library that had been divided among three sites is now consolidated and readily accessible. Guest lectures and classes will be offered in-house. Shabbat services will not have deadlines. Friday night services are on the horizon, and a weekly Wednesday minyan has been initiated.

The minyan is especially important. Other congregations in Santa Cruz also offer a weekly morning service, and with Kol Tefillah’s Wednesday addition, “the community now has a chance to say Kaddish once per day,” Bochner said.

With a big new sanctuary, kitchen, classroom and library, the 50 families of Kol Tefillah look forward to a long and successful future in their new home. And they hope to have other families join them.

“Santa Cruz is no longer a one-shul town,” Bochner said. “There is a growing interest in the Jewish way of life. We look forward to celebrating our progress in another 13 years.”