Coastside community expands its synagogue to Berkeley

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The joke about every town needing two synagogues — one that you go to, and one that you don’t go to — doesn’t apply to the Bay Area expanse known as the Coastside, stretching from Pacifica to Pescadero.

In fact, the reverse is true: The Coastside’s only synagogue has expanded its reach to a second county altogether, and it isn’t even on the coast.

For two decades, Coastside Jewish Community has offered services in Half Moon Bay and Pacifica. Since November, it also has been meeting one Saturday a month in Berkeley, where a number of its congregants live. For many of those East Bay members, their affiliation grew out of a relationship with CJC cantorial soloist Julie Batz, who trains b’nai mitzvah students as an independent educator.

Board president Laura Alster-Martin credits CJC’s dynamic leaders — Batz and Jhos Singer — for the synagogue’s growth. “They are both so charismatic,” she said. “They’ve brought in a lot of families from the East Bay.”

Bat mitzvah Mia Trachtenberg carries the Torah in 2009, followed by Coastside Jewish Community’s Julie Batz. photo/brenda ernst

Singer and Batz are married and live in Berkeley, where many of Batz’s former students and their families expressed interest in staying connected and supporting her work. Batz was a co-founder of Jewish Milestones, which offered educational and ritual resources for unaffiliated Jews until a recent reorganization.

“Julie and Jhos have a sort of shadow congregation in the East Bay,” said Berkeley resident Taly Rutenberg, who joined CJC after her daughter worked with Batz for her bat mitzvah. Rutenberg proposed the idea of offering services in Berkeley and including the entire Coastside community, which numbers about 80 families. About 20 East Bay families regularly participate in services.

Batz and Singer were excited about the possibility of unifying two geographically separate spaces into one community. “It seemed like a viable idea, because it had already happened in this congregation,” Batz said. “They’re used to commuting.”

Started in the early 1990s after a particularly successful Chanukah party in Half Moon Bay, the Coastside congregation grew, drawing in families from nearby towns, as well as cities on the Peninsula. CJC rents spaces from local churches, so it has been easy enough to offer services in different spots. Congregants meet in Half Moon Bay on the second weekend of the month and in Pacifica on the fourth Friday of the month.

“We are the only congregation for a big swath of geographic space, and we want to be welcoming to people who grew up in any denomination of Judaism, as well as interfaith families, people who grew up in a different faith, and we’re very welcoming of LGBT,” Batz said. “We’re just Jewish!”

Julie Batz

The expansion has been “really exciting,” Batz added. “We had our congregation-wide Sukkot celebration in the East Bay, and we held a Friday evening service in November at an East Bay member’s home, and we will have Saturday Shabbat in Berkeley at another member’s home on Jan. 28.” Four more East Bay services are scheduled this year.

CJC members describe the services as eclectic and musical. They use a Reconstructionist prayerbook, incorporating chanting and meditation, English readings and a distinctive mix of contemporary and traditional music. On the High Holy Days, services end on the beach in Pacifica, where Singer wades into the surf with a shofar.

Singer, a maggid (storyteller) who serves as spiritual leader, is the driving beat behind CJC, having studied music at UCLA and played in several bands of widely varying musical styles, from Bulgarian folk to Shlomo Carlebach, “the singing rabbi” known as a pioneer of the ba’al tshuvah (returnee to faith) movement.

Key values named on the synagogue website include acceptance, social justice, “being connected to the tradition while also being innovative” and including children “as an integral part of our community.”

Singer radically changed the model for the CJC religious school, insisting that parents attend the twice-monthly lessons with their children.

“Our philosophy is that we don’t want kids learning things that parents don’t know,” Batz explained. “So as a family they can decide and create what their Jewish experience is going to be.”

Singer said the model has been so successful that most of the kids who become b’nai mitzvah remain active in services. “Last year, almost every part of the Rosh Hashanah Torah service was led by teens,” he said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when everyone saw their kids up there.”

The future of CJC and its two communities is yet to be determined. The board and leadership are hopeful members will continue to commute back and forth across the Bay to worship together. “We are all kind of looking at it as a really interesting experiment,” said Batz.