Bnai Israel goes independent to reflect its diverse membership

When Rabbi Ted Feldman delivers a sermon — especially during the High Holy Days — those seated before him at the B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma don’t dare nod off.             

That’s because he’ll likely facilitate a discussion following his talk, one of the perks of leading a synagogue that’s almost like a family.

With a membership of approximately 125 families and individuals, “it’s a smaller community, so there’s a greater sense of intimacy,” said Feldman, now in his fifth year as B’nai Israel’s rabbi. “The size allows me to know everybody.”

Called Congregation B’nai Israel until it was given its current name in 2006, the center serves as the hub for Jewish life in southern Sonoma County. This year marks the center’s 145th anniversary, a milestone that president Jim Stern sees more as a challenge to keep churning out innovative programming and events.  

Phyllis Feibusch (left), Jeanne Straus and Marsha Harris of the B’nai Israel Sisterhood prepare fixings at the men’s club kosher cook-off. photo/courtesy b’nai israel

“It’s very important to me that B’nai Israel is a vibrant, viable community for Petaluma and surrounding areas,” he said, noting that the center’s bylaws date back to 1864. “We blaze our own path and don’t look to imitate any other synagogues.”

This year, the center dropped its membership with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Stern explained that the center didn’t want to be seen as “hypocritical,” since its members practice various streams of Judaism. 

“We don’t fit into any box or slip into any cubby hole,” he said. “Some members are not very observant, and some are. We don’t ask.

“I would say in any synagogue, you’d find people who are closer to Orthodox, or profess to be atheist, but want to be identified with the Jewish community. We try to be responsive to that.”

In the past, B’nai Israel has set up a mechitzah, or synagogue divider, to conduct services similar to an Orthodox shul. The center has borrowed prayer books from Reconstructionist, Reform and Renewal congregations, and held services in those streams as well.

Catholics and evangelical Christians have even shown up for the center’s Talmud classes.

Individuals from Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa flock to B’nai Israel’s annual summer kosher cook-off, sponsored by the men’s club. And the center’s Chanukah party and Passover seder sell out every year, according to Stern. He’s even had to turn people away.

Poetry slams, a rock ‘n’ roll dance and the Christmas Eve comedy night are also crowd-pleasers. Next up is a bird-watching excursion in Ukiah. The goal, Stern said, is to offer activities that bring out the center’s “haimish” quality.

Before such events, Stern makes a point to call the entire membership, which takes about three hours. The majority of congregants live in Petaluma, with a few trickling in from Novato, Cotati and Santa Rosa.

On occasion, the B’nai Israel Center has partnered with Sonoma Hillel for youth group events, sometimes “loaning out” Feldman when the house needs a rabbi.

It’s a dream gig for Feldman, who credits B’nai Israel’s membership size with allowing him to know every congregant, something he found challenging when he led 350 families at B’nai Torah Congregation of Boca Raton some 20 years ago.

Still, “there certainly is potential for growth” at the center, Feldman said. In the past year, the religious school roster has nearly doubled, from 12 students to 23.

Stern would like to see member units increase from 125 to 150. 

Built in 1925, the center is in the midst of a multiphase remodel. Construction on the front of the building is nearly complete, while the sanctuary boasts new lights, carpet and paint. A ramp to the bimah was installed for those with disabilities.

“We’re trying to keep the old feel and style, but clean it up,” Stern said. “We’ll just be a more modern, warmer community.”