The board of the Napa Center for Thought and Culture (from left) Evy Warshawski, Rabbi Niles Goldstein, Suzanne Mason, Ellyn Elson, Larry Kamer, Mara Adelman
The board of the Napa Center for Thought and Culture (from left) Evy Warshawski, Rabbi Niles Goldstein, Suzanne Mason, Ellyn Elson, Larry Kamer, Mara Adelman

Napa synagogue launches Jew-ish culture center

A new cultural program created by two leaders in the Napa Jewish community has given Napa Valley something more substantial to offer than fine wine and great food. It is now serving up food for thought as well.

The Napa Center for Thought and Culture, launched by Congregation Beth Shalom Rabbi Niles Goldstein and synagogue board president Ellyn Elson, is a nonprofit that aims to “nurture the heart, mind, and spirit with knowledge, culture, and community,” according to the mission statement. Think Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y programming, or the JCC of San Francisco’s Arts & Ideas, but located in the serene Napa Valley.

“I wanted to engage people who wanted more Judaism in their lives but did not want to come into a synagogue,” said Elson, a corporate CEO who started thinking about the concept five years ago. “I wanted a mechanism for programming outside of the synagogue, so people can come to things that are based on Jewish values but are not exclusively Jewish.”

Initially called the Jewish Center for Learning in the proposal stage, the name was later changed to more closely represent the objective of presenting Jewish programming with appeal to the broader community.

The first event was a June screening of “Itzhak,” a documentary about violinist Itzhak Perlman, and was followed by a Q&A with local conductor and composer Tom Conlin, who had worked with Perlman. It was a “packed house” of about 150 people, according to Elson.

The next event, at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia on Aug. 26, will be a screening of “RBG,” a documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It will include a panel discussion with four female courtroom judges.

“A lot of people in the Napa Jewish community felt that although Napa was a very engaging and compelling place for wine, food, beauty and nature, it lacked an equally compelling context for great cultural and educational programs,” said Goldstein, the founding rabbi of the New Shul in Manhattan who has led CBS for the last year.

A board of eight, which Elson will head, includes both synagogue members and members of the community representing a diversity of fields and experiences. She said they are planning a slate of intellectually and culturally engaging programs, with speakers, Q&As, salons and roundtable discussions. Events will be held at locations throughout Napa, from the public library to Copia (the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts) and Lincoln Theater, as well as Napa Valley College.

An interview series led by Goldstein called “The Road Not Taken” will feature people who pursued unique career paths, such as a Jewish FBI agent whose spirituality was affected by seeing “the dark side of life.” Also in the works is a lecture by a scholar who has studied the way technology and electronic gadgets affect people’s ability to focus.

“These types of [ideas for] programs, like one about Leonard Cohen, are on subjects that not only touch Jews,” Elson said. “The subject of refugees and distraction is not only a Jewish subject.”

She said she is impressed by how fast the board has been moving, with as many as 10 events already planned and an ambitious fundraiser in place called the Center 100 that seeks to raise $100,000 in 90 days.

“I think the need is great and the enthusiasm has been profound” for this type of programming, said Goldstein. Added Elson, “Everyone is hungry for this.”

Hannah Jannol
Hannah Jannol

Hannah Jannol is J.'s summer 2018 intern.