Synagogue by the sea: North Coast Jews build spirited community in the redwoods

Deep in the woods of Mendocino County, along a dirt road that even the most advanced GPS can’t locate, lives a rabbi.

The rabbi’s few hundred congregants come from a rugged, 500-square-mile area comparable to the size of Rhode Island. Some live in towns where the speed limit is higher than the population. Others have homes off the grid.

Many have moved “back to the land,” and all represent a variety of Jewish beliefs, practice and knowledge.

That there is a synagogue on the Mendocino coast might not be surprising. That it is thriving should be.

“You have every flavor of Jew here,” said Chuck Greenberg, a retired contractor who lives with his wife, Claire Ellis, in Little River, a small, unincorporated community in Mendocino County. “We’re all pretty damn different, and we get along better than most communities.”

The Mendocino Coast Jewish Community — located 150 miles from the Bay Area in the town of Caspar, on Highway 1 between Mendocino and Fort Bragg — has grown from a grassroots-style association in the 1960s into the north coast’s center of Jewish life.

Rabbi Margaret Holub leads a lesson on tzedakah during Torah school, a twice-monthly gathering on Friday afternoons that is attended by children and their parents.

Self-described as “a contemporary rural American shtetl,” the unaffiliated MCJC boasts a colorful website that, in addition to Torah commentary and class listings, includes recipes “with ideas stolen from master bakers” and advice to visitors to “watch out for cows, sheep, cyclists and other cars heading the wrong way in your lane.”

With Torah study, Shabbat services, sisterhood retreats, book clubs, a film festival, a library, camp scholarships, holiday celebrations and b’nai mitzvah (children and adults), the synagogue survives and is sustained under the leadership of Rabbi Margaret Holub.

Holub started at the MCJC in 1983 as a rabbinical intern during the High Holy Days, becoming the community’s full-time rabbi six years later.

“I was inspired by how people live here, and I continue to admire the people I live with,” she said. “Many rabbis come to communities and it’s their job to teach and make their congregants better people. The lucky few, like myself, have an incredible blessing of getting to be the rabbi of the exact community they want to be in life with.”

Five-year-old Aria Millen (left) and Serafina Lewis, 4, make a mural.

About 300 households receive the Mendocino Megillah, the synagogue’s monthly newsletter. Of those, about one-third contribute financially to the community. But that’s just a guess, since there is no conventional dues structure. Those who can give, do.

“If you are Jewish and live on the Mendocino coast,” said Mickey Chalfin, Holub’s husband of 20 years, “you are already a member.”

In 1996, the MCJC acquired a historic church built in the late 1800s in Caspar. Congregants converted it to a sanctuary and community center, creating the county’s first synagogue. Its Holocaust-era Torah scroll is 150 years old.

At a springtime Saturday morning service, the mood is low-key. Congregants trickle in, dressed in hiking boots and dress shoes, suits and jeans. They sit in folding chairs, reading from prayerbooks that are gender-neutral and inclusive. Non-Jews and tourists come to worship, too.

Sunlight floods the sanctuary through pastel-colored stained-glass windows. Red carpeting blankets the floor, and artwork created by congregants serves as décor.

Outside the sanctuary doors stands an easel with instructions for an 18-minute retreat: breathe for three minutes, plan something important, do yoga, rest your mind.

“This is the only Jewish community I’ve ever felt connected to,” Ellis said. “When I [first] walked in and saw the folding chairs, I instantly loved it.”

Dena Blauner (left) and Fran Schwartz say the motzi over a challah following Saturday morning services. photos/stacey palevsky

Throughout the service, Holub asks the 12 congregants present that day for their thoughts on prayers, melodies or the week’s Torah portion. If someone wishes to stray from the traditional prayers and melodies, Holub happily detours. Torah readers rotate every week.

Following the service, the group gathers for a Kiddush of freshly baked challah and grape juice. The congregants and guests shmooze, then together they clean up, sweep and wash dishes.

“This is the ‘Charlie Brown’ of shuls,” said Annie Beckett, a Sea Ranch resident who drives three hours round trip to attend synagogue. A retiree from Los Angeles, Beckett converted to Judaism after her son’s Jewish wedding left her feeling like she was missing something. She joined the community 20 years ago.

“It’s just so full of heart and soul,” she added. “This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life.”

Compared with Saturday morning services, about 200 adults and their children — nearly the entire Jewish community — attend High Holy Days and the occasional bar or bat mitzvah (three or four each year). Other events, such as a Chanukah talent show and Purim play, bring in large groups as well.

Children up to age 13 can attend Torah school every other Friday after school. Attendance — usually between 20 and 25 students — is sparse on a particular Friday because two local school districts are on spring break. Wind whips through the synagogue’s nearly empty dirt parking lot.

Inside, seven children and a few parents circle up with Holub and teachers Mina Cohen and Jessica Grinberg to learn about tzedakah. Some listen, others fidget as Holub directs their attention to a blue tin tzedakah box. She asks, “If you gave money, would you want people to know?”

Shoulders shrug, until one girl raises her hand. “Maybe if you did something good, it will make you feel better about yourself,” she says. Holub adds, “Maybe you’ll be inspired to do more mitzvot.”

The group stands and follows Holub around the sanctuary, where tzedakah-inspired artwork hangs on the walls. Like visitors to a museum, they talk about each piece and the meaning behind it. The kids are eager to touch the art, and that’s OK.

The tour ends in the kitchen, where scissors, markers and paper Stars of David are waiting to be scattered. The kids grab for the supplies and begin creating their own artwork, a mural of stars, to hang in the synagogue.

Meanwhile, parents hustle around the kitchen’s perimeter, warming challah, mixing salad and setting the table for Shabbat dinner. For most, dropping off their kids is not an option — the drive to and from the Caspar synagogue is too far. So they stay, listen and mingle.

As Elias Steinbeck pulls steaming broccoli from the oven, he catches his 6-year-old daughter Josephine coloring Stars of David. He smiles and praises her.

Born and raised in Elk (about 30 minutes south of Mendocino), Steinbuck grew up in the MCJC. He began studying Hebrew at age 8 with a family friend and had his bar mitzvah five years later. College and the desire to travel uprooted him from Elk, but he later returned to Mendocino to live and start a family.

“I’ve been back seven years now,” Steinbuck said. “I’ve always loved the area. There are not many places that are as spectacularly beautiful with a lot of like-minded people. Anybody I know who was raised here has a connection to the area.”

Steinbuck is a rarity among those who grew up in the community, returning as he did to give Josephine a childhood experience reminiscent of his own. Most opt for city life, where it’s significantly easier to earn a salary.

“One of the greatest gifts is when you see someone who grew up here come back and choose to live and raise a family here,” said Susan Hofberg, who owns Corners of the Mouth, a local organic health food store. “That makes me so happy.”

Hofberg, formerly of Los Angeles, lives down the street from Holub and Chalfin in Albion, an unincorporated community. She often joins them for Shabbat dinner, along with George and Donna Montag, who reside off the grid in Elk.

 The home Holub and Chalfin share is eclectic and funky, warm and inviting. A small Hebrew sign that reads “shalom” marks their property line. It’s eerily silent. There is no traffic. Cell phones are useless. For them, it’s perfect.

Years before Holub became a permanent fixture in 1989, George Montag remembers when there hardly was a Jewish community at all. It coalesced in the late 1960s and early ’70s, after one Jew started “knocking on doors and driving down dirt roads,” he said.

His name was Rabbi Hanan Sills, an energetic man sent by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation to connect unaffiliated Jews with culture, religion and traditions. Sills led the community for about nine years before moving on.

A gap followed his departure; those who craved a Jewish community or wanted to raise their kids Jewish had to drive more than 100 miles to Santa Rosa. Student rabbis, including Holub, filled in.

As Jews continued to populate Mendocino, they formed a lay-led Shabbat minyan. Most of the Jews who live in the area now are transplants from cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

Originally from Hungary, George Montag moved from New York City to San Francisco during the Summer of Love, in the late ’60s.

He came to Mendocino shortly thereafter “with no plan,” he said. “I just wanted to live off the land.” George met Donna, also from New York, and the pair married. Their son, Zappa Montag (now 41 and living in Oakland), was one of the first to have a bar mitzvah with the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community.

The Montags came to Mendocino for the land, the idyllic quality of life and the connection to nature. Being part of a Jewish community in Mendocino was not a top priority, but it’s undeniable how much their participation has shaped their lives.

The MCJC has its own volunteer-led board, on which Donna holds two positions — treasurer and head of rituals and holidays. Holub is the only paid employee, whose salary is supported by donations from members.

There is also a volunteer chevra kadisha (burial society) and 80 plots in the Jewish section of the city’s cemetery, all spoken for. The synagogue has a freezer stocked with food for those in need.

“I really do feel in my heart and soul that this is my community,” said Fran Schwartz of Mendocino, formerly Los Angeles, where she was involved in a large, progressive synagogue for 32 years. “This is a hands-on congregation. Everyone pitches in.”

The growing trend in the Bay Area of connecting Jewish ritual to nature is how Jews in Mendocino have lived for decades by virtue of being in the woods, on cliffs and by the ocean.

In Mendocino, the beauty and vulnerability of the planet is on their doorstep every morning and is woven into the tapestry of their days.

“People who live here have a powerful connection to nature,” said Theresa Glasner-Morales, a Santa Rosa native who, prior to moving to Mendocino, attended Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. “You have to really want to be here because it’s far away from everything.”

Like the roads throughout Mendocino County, Holub’s path to becoming the community’s rabbi was long and winding.

Hosting a Cambodian family in her small Los Angeles apartment during graduate school inspired Holub to commit to doing more good work. She began rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Her path took her to Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York, where she was one of the first 100 women to be ordained in the Reform movement. Holub returned to Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

During that time, she also visited Mendocino every year to lead High Holy Days services and the occasional b’nai mitzvah or funeral. Compared with the large synagogues found in Los Angeles and New York, the MCJC was simple and relaxed.

“No one teaches this in rabbinical school,” Holub said of small-town leadership. “This set-up would be seen as a failure. No one aspires to this.”

Holub was hired full time 21 years ago. Her community is one that welcomes everyone who wants to participate. Inclusiveness is a necessity, as congregants are scattered throughout a rugged swath covering country roads and forests.

“Margaret has a way of including people from all walks of life,” Glasner-Morales said. “The way she interprets Torah and helps people understand what they’re going through using prayer is so powerful.”

Staff writer Stacey Palevsky contributed to this report.

For information on the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, visit www.mcjc.org.