Where the Holy Days are truly high at 2,500 feet

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From their perch atop a hill in downtown Grass Valley — at 2,500 feet above sea level — the members of Congregation B’nai Harim may experience a more elevated perspective on the Days of Awe than the rest of us.

A small cadre of Jews and non-Jews observed the turning of the year 5774 this week in their cozy sanctuary in the well-forested Sierra foothills, and next week, musicians will offer Kol Nidre on lyre, clarinet and piano.

The Corner Deli at the Nevada County Fair in Grass Valley

The 90-family Reform shul is the only synagogue in Nevada County, and at least an hour’s drive in any direction from any other congregation.

B’Nai Harim’s “Corner Deli” booth at the Nevada County Fair, a major fundraiser each August, is one example of how the little congregation is working hard to build community.

“Last year, the booth next to us was a corn dog booth,” says Rabbi Alan Greenbaum. A young man approached the synagogue’s popular deli food counter and ordered a kosher hot dog, but didn’t want it on a bun. “We said, ‘Fine, whatever.’ We prepared it and gave him basically a hot dog in a little cardboard container. He went next door to the corn dog booth and explained to them, and to me, that he was hoping to have a kosher corn dog.”

The Corner Deli, renamed two years ago after a 31-year run as the Bagel Booth, served kosher hot dogs, knishes, New York cheesecake, pastrami sandwiches and, yes, Safeway bagels at this year’s five-day fair from Aug. 6 to 10.  “It continues to be a very interesting vehicle and bridge to the larger non-Jewish community,” says Greenbaum, part-time rabbi for the past six years.

And for some unaffiliated Jews, the booth has been an entrée into synagogue life.

The synagogue welcomes Jewish and interfaith families, as well as the many non-Jews who attend services simply to be neighborly. The sanctuary can seat about 125 people at its fullest, and at any given High Holy Day service, Greenbaum says, perhaps one-third of those present are not Jewish.

The synagogue got its start in 1979, when 15 respondents to an ad in the local newspaper met to form what would become the Nevada County Jewish Community Center. (Nevada County is northeast of Sacramento, just north of Highway 80 as it curls from Auburn to Truckee.)

A volunteer at Congregation B’nai Harim’s annual Deli Nite fundraiser in 2010, then held at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center photo/b’nai harim

The early focus was on social activities and holiday celebrations, but by 1980, the NCJCC was holding monthly Shabbat services, and in 1994 moved into its current building, purchased from a church.

Greenbaum came aboard in 2007 after having served as senior rabbi at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks for 22 years, and at synagogues in Memphis, Tenn., and Galveston, Texas, before that.

At 89 years old, Bill Kroot was a driving force almost from the beginning for B’nai Harim, which means “Children of the Mountains.” The former chemistry professor and occasional carpenter moved post-retirement to Grass Valley with his late wife, Polly. He remembers hosting Shabbat dinners and services in their home, using a set of old Union prayerbooks rescued from a barn.

After the purchase of the synagogue’s permanent building, Kroot removed crosses from pews, built cabinets and jackhammered an unneeded slab of concrete. Now he volunteers as part of the B’Nai Harim group that maintains two nearby Gold Rush–era Jewish cemeteries, in collaboration with the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks in the West, which oversees seven historic cemeteries in Northern California.

“We cut the grass, we pull the weeds. It’s awesome to wander around among the tombstones,” he says. “It makes you realize the length of time that the Jews have been in this community.”

Greenbaum says there is a gap between the Gold Rush–era Jewish merchants who came to the Sierra foothills in the 1840s and ’50s and the families that live in Grass Valley, Nevada City and other nearby towns today.

“The Gold Rush drew a lot of Jews initially, but when the gold was not happening for a lot of people, the merchants had to change venues,” he says.

In the short time the original Jewish settlers were active, they formed B’nai B’rith lodges, hired a kosher slaughterer, attended occasional High Holy Day services and held at least one or two documented Passover seders. But by the 1860s, the original community had begun to disappear, and the pioneer cemeteries represent the major lasting legacy of that era.

B’Nai Harim is now in transition, as an older generation passes responsibilities to younger leaders. Although a large chunk of the membership consists of retirees who enthusiastically join in the one or two bar or bat mitzvah celebrations each year, the religious school has 40 students and the synagogue is actively recruiting younger families.

And Greenbaum expects the sixth annual “Deli Nite” fundraiser, on Sept. 21 at the Elks Lodge in Nevada City, to follow tradition and draw plenty of support from the non-Jewish community. And why shouldn’t it? After all, it’s all-you-can-eat.