Jewish community of Petaluma celebrates 150 years

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In 1949, Shelley Bauer’s Holocaust survivor parents arrived in Petaluma. There they found a Jewish community that embraced them and their quest for a new start after the horrors they had endured in Europe.

A celebration in August 1925 for the opening of the Petaluma Jewish Community Center photo/courtesy b’nai israel jewish center

This month, Bauer, 66, has been helping to organize a Nov. 1 gala celebration honoring that welcoming spirit, and the 150th anniversary of this Jewish community in Sonoma County.

“We’re the oldest community north of San Francisco all the way to Portland,” says Jim Stern, 70, the chair of the gala’s organizing committee. (Note: Another B’nai Israel, in Sacramento, is 15 years older, but that’s slightly inland rather than due north.)

Stern, who grew up in San Francisco, served as B’nai Israel’s president from 2009 to 2012 and has lived in Petaluma for 35 years.

“It will be a joyous event,” he says of the gala, “a chance for the community to celebrate our communal history. People can reconnect. It’s a commemorative simcha.”

“Part of our history is our connections to our Jewish roots,” adds Rabbi Ted Feldman, who has been leading the congregation since 2005.

Feldman has been trying to dig up details about the community’s earliest days, but without much luck. There are few historical records other than the minutes of board meetings, he says, which don’t offer much of a storyline.

A yad that was presented to B’nai Israel in the 1860s photo/deborah garber

“Moved and carried that a committee of three be appointed to render a note of thanks to the Petaluma Hebrew Ladies Society and to the Petaluma Lodge Free Masons,” read the minutes from the first meeting on Oct. 22, 1864.

It is known that the 19th-century arrivals were mainly from Eastern Europe, and they were of varying cultural, educational, political and religious backgrounds. Still, they came together, and were incorporated as Congregation Society B’nai Israel by the state in 1871. Yet they had no place to gather other than in private homes, public halls and the occasional church.

By the 1930s and 1940s, when Petaluma was known as the “Egg Basket of the World,” thousands of chicken farmers worked the land, including hundreds of Jewish farming families. Near the end of World War I, word got out among Jews back East that Petaluma was a great place to settle, and many of those who came were from the shtetls of the Old Country and the sweatshops of New York’s Lower East Side who dreamed of escaping poverty.

“The new influx of Jews from Russia strengthened the numbers and depth of the Petaluma Jewish community,” reads the history page on B’nai Israel’s website, referring to the tight-knit groups of socialist, Labor Zionist and communist Jews who flocked to the growing community in those postwar years.

When a building on 740 Western Ave., a few blocks from downtown Petaluma, was dedicated in 1925, the community finally had its own home, called the Petaluma Jewish Community Center.

“This was built as a Jewish Community Center, not as a traditional synagogue,” Feldman says as he leads a visitor into the building, which still serves as B’nai Israel’s home today. By midcentury, the political atmosphere had changed, and the pioneer chicken farmers’ antipathy to religion gave way to a new generation’s priorities. “In the 1950s, the Center evolved into more of a synagogue than a place for different groups to meet,” the website records.

Tucked off to the right of the entrance, a small sanctuary provides space for just 50 worshippers. The rest of the building is used for learning and socializing.

On weekdays, Gan Israel, a preschool started 35 years ago, uses much of the building. At other times during the week, rooms are booked for potlucks and study groups and meetings for organizations such as Hadassah and the center’s men’s club. On Sundays, there is religious school.

But this 150-year celebration is less about the building than it is about the community’s past and future. Like many Jewish communities, Feldman says Petaluma’s is in a state of flux. Younger families want less of a traditional congregation experience, he says, and B’nai Israel, with about 110 member families, is trying to adapt.

An old photo of B’nai Israel Jewish Center’s current building

“The sociology of it all has changed,” says Feldman, who came to B’nai Israel after serving as the executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay for 10 years. He has lived in Petaluma since 2006.

As the greater Bay Area population grows, and more people move to Sonoma County, Feldman says B’nai Israel is shifting, as well. In 2006, it removed “Congregation” from its name and dropped its affiliation with the Conservative movement. Now people call it many things: “The Temple,” “The Center” or “B’nai Israel.”

One interesting note: The synagogue still uses a yad (Torah pointer) that the community was using in 1861.

During the anniversary gala dinner at the Sheraton in Petaluma, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn will provide a musical program, and a video called “A Look Back at Petaluma’s Jewish Community” will be shown. It includes interviews with some of the oldest members of Petaluma’s Jewish community.

Maielle Weinstock, 15, who has been editing the video, says, “I liked hearing about how the community was back when [the interviewees] were young and how warm it was to come into the community center, like it was their second home.”

Over the past year, there has been a big push to collect old photos, artifacts and memorabilia that people may have had tucked away. Some of the items will be in the video, and some will be part of a display at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum set to run from February through early April.

As for the gala, Fran Piotrkowski, another organizing committee member, says there has been a palpable feeling of anticipation and excitement as the date approaches.

“I hope people come and feel that it’s joyful, and they realize that the community is greater than just dropping the kids off at school and going to High Holidays,” she said. “There’s a community here, and we’re all part of the history.”

B’nai Israel Jewish Center 150th anniversary gala dinner, 6 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Sheraton Sonoma County, 745 Baywood Drive, Petaluma. $118. or contact Fran Piotrkowski at (707) 478-7186 or [email protected].

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.