Barefoot rabbi founded worship group, attracted searchers

Rabbi Jerry Winston worked tirelessly to unite Jews of all beliefs, a concept that had its critics but in practice led to a sizable contingent of followers.

“Jerry’s very special gift was his appeal to those who searched for content in their belief, and a content that related to the world of today,” said Eva Seligman-Kennard. “He was a master at putting people at ease with their personal views and expression of Jewish values and traditions.”

Winston died Dec. 19 in San Rafael from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 74. A memorial service will take place 2 p.m. Feb. 13 at Montgomery Chapel in San Anselmo.

Writer, psychotherapist, rabbi-in-residence at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo (where he met his late wife, Pamela Mosely Winston) and Jewish chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, Winston was perhaps known best as the founder of Barah, the Creative Center for American Judaism.

Barah, located in San Anselmo (where the Winstons lived), attracted Jews of varied backgrounds, ages, demographics and political views. Inclusivity was a major component of the community of about 50 families, who paid neither membership dues nor High Holy Day ticket fees.

Members nicknamed Winston the “barefoot rabbi,” because his flowing white beard, all-white attire and sandals conjured up the image of a shepherd. His attire mirrored Barah’s unconventional existence — no sisterhood, no men’s club, no official building.

“At the end of Yom Kippur fasting, Jerry — his tallit flapping in the wind and a big smile on his face — would lead his congregation up the mountain in San Anselmo,” recalled Seligman-Kennard, a former Barah member, “to prepare for the first three stars to appear in the sky and the closing of the gates [worship].”

Barah services were initially held at Lone Mountain College, which was acquired by the University of San Francisco in the 1970s, and later moved to Montgomery Chapel of the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Other holidays were celebrated in people’s homes. More than 250 would gather for Passover, sitting around a table with food and all-ages musical entertainment.

Larry Becker first attended Winston’s Shabbat service at Lone Mountain. Raised in an Orthodox home, Becker wanted to explore Judaism outside of its institutional confines. He was impressed by Winston’s willingness to connect with his followers.

“It was a service that was direct to you,” the Greenbrae resident said. “He made [praying] personal to everyone. Jerry was an entrée into Judaism for people who were alienated but wanted the connection.”

Winston officiated at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. He also was one of the first rabbis in California to perform interfaith marriages, much to the consternation of his colleagues. Becker said in the beginning, Winston was seen as an enemy. That changed as the years passed.

“Jerry didn’t look at [interfaith marriage] as losing Jews,” Becker said. “He saw it as bringing more people into Judaism. Many non-Jews did come in. Many who came through Barah would migrate to [congregations] Kol Shofar or Rodef Sholom. After a while, other rabbis would say, ‘Maybe this guy isn’t so bad.’ ”

Those who stayed worked hard to keep Barah afloat. Winston appealed to his members for donations, but this model was not always successful. Becker noted that Winston’s lack of financial acumen often led to setbacks and frustration among his board of directors.

Barah ceased to exist about 12 years ago.

But there were plenty of good times, too. Winston and Becker were both born in Brooklyn, a fact they bonded over. Becker remembered weekend trips to Yosemite with 30 others. Winston loved hiking, parks and watching his sons, Jonathan and Oliver, play sports. He was a very devoted parent, Becker said.

Winston, who was born in 1936, was also an accomplished author. In 1985, he completed the first of 10 guides to Jewish holidays and ceremonies in the home.

With the exception of Passover and the ritual of lighting candles on Chanukah, Winston told j. at the time, “All the other holidays have been appropriated by the synagogues. To me, the proper place for them is in the home.”

His Chanukah haggadah covered the rituals and symbols at the opening and closing of the eight-day holiday. With sections about latkes, candles, music, dreidels and menorahs, Winston outlined a method both simple and poetic for celebrating the winter festival.

“Jerry is single-handedly responsible for keeping many Jews — otherwise disengaged — connected to their heritage, traditions and customs,” Seligman-Kennard said, “through his inimical way of engaging people on all levels, on the level they were, so he could meet them there. He inspired a loyalty not often seen, which led to his amazing and lifelong friendships and connections with members of his community.”

A little more than 10 years ago, Winston started showing signs of Parkinson’s disease. His wife became his caretaker. During that time, she discovered a lump in her breast but ignored it in favor of taking care of her husband. She died of breast cancer approximately three weeks before her husband.

Winston is survived by sons Jonathan and Oliver. Donations to the family may be sent to Eva Seligman-Kennard, 76 Suffield Ave., San Anselmo, CA 94960. For checks, please write “Winston” on the memo line.