A Purim party among the trees at Chabad of Grass Valley, which serves Jews throughout Nevada County. (Photo/Courtesy Chabad of Grass Valley)
A Purim party among the trees at Chabad of Grass Valley, which serves Jews throughout Nevada County. (Photo/Courtesy Chabad of Grass Valley)

Jews are returning to Gold Country after panning city life

Updated Aug. 7

Soon after Bernie Zimmerman moved from San Francisco to rural Nevada County, he and his wife, Grace, attended a local New Year’s Eve bash. Right away, he noticed something strange about his neighbors. They were all armed.

“Everybody had a gun on their hips,” Zimmerman recalled. “The women were pulling guns out of their purses. At midnight, instead of shooting off fireworks, everyone starts shooting off their guns.”

That was back in 1979. Zimmerman says that today the adjacent towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City in the Sierra Foothills — combined population just under 20,000 — have shed their Wild West image as retirees and young families from the California coast have relocated there, seeking a more tranquil lifestyle.

The Zimmermans are now part of a small but growing Jewish community that boasts a JCC, a Reform congregation, a Chabad center and summer camp, an annual menorah lighting in downtown Nevada City and two historic Jewish cemeteries. Grass Valley, the more modern of the two towns, lies adjacent to Nevada City, which exudes a rustic, Old West atmosphere.

Bernie Zimmerman on the deck of his Nevada County home. (Photo/Courtesy Zimmerman)
Bernie Zimmerman on the deck of his Nevada County home. (Photo/Courtesy Zimmerman)

Every day from his back porch, Zimmerman, the son of Holocaust survivors, looks out on the purple mountains majesty of the Tahoe National Forest. It’s a touch of paradise in Gold Country.

It’s also very homogenous. At 83% white, Nevada County is one of the least ethnically diverse counties in California.

Earlier generations of Jews gravitated to this garden spot an hour’s drive northeast of Sacramento when they learned of the California Gold Rush back in 1849, European Jews flocked there, opened businesses, bought gold mines and put down roots. When the mines died out in the early 1900s, most of the Jews scattered.

Many decades later, they’re returning.

“In the last few years, we’ve had a real boom of young people moving out of the Bay Area and Los Angeles,” Zimmerman says. “My newest neighbors are tech professionals working remotely. Tourism is big here. There’s a lot of farming and ranching in favor of sustainable this and grass-fed that.”

Congregation B’nai Harim (“Children of the Mountains” in Hebrew) shares a building with the Nevada County JCC in Grass Valley — both are pillars of Jewish life in the region. B’nai Harim hosts Friday night services twice a month and celebrates all the Jewish holidays. There’s a sisterhood, as well as a men’s group. Sunday school meets throughout the academic year, exposing students to Torah stories, Hebrew, Israeli history and Jewish values.

Congregation B'nai Harim and the Nevada County JCC share a building in Grass Valley. (Photo/Courtesy)
Congregation B’nai Harim and the Nevada County JCC share a building in Grass Valley. (Photo/Adam Chin)

Rabbi David Azen is the spiritual leader of B’nai Harim. A New Jersey native, he came to the Grass Valley synagogue part time in 2016. At first he commuted from Sacramento, where he still runs Fresher Futures, a nonprofit that provides free meals to seniors and others facing food insecurity. Earlier this year, he moved to Grass Valley to be closer to the congregation.

“Social justice is a key component of who we are as a synagogue,” he says of the 45-year-old Reform congregation. “We have monthly mitzvah and tzedakah projects. We have about 70 households, so around 200 members, with about 15 youth in different programs.”

Azen appreciates the spirit of his Jewish community up in the clean mountain air.

“Everyone is warm and welcoming,” he says. “There are no pretensions whatsoever. We don’t have the kind of wealth that Berkeley or San Francisco has, so there’s not a lot of social differentiation.”

He notes that the JCC was founded first but that B’nai Harim has been the primary locus of activity in the building in recent years. Azen expects in the near future that the JCC will expand its activities.

Rabbi David Azen (right) with some of his students (Photo/Courtesy)
Rabbi David Azen (right) with some of his students (Photo/Courtesy)

“We’ve done some visioning and surveying,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll be moving to offer more classes and programming.” After Azen arrived, his congregation bought a quarter-acre lot in the back of the building and turned it into a “lovely” backyard. “We’ll be holding a lot of events out there,” he says.

B’nai Harim is not the only Jewish congregation in town. Chabad of Grass Valley, too, has a thriving community, led by Rabbi Nochum Yusewitz and his wife, rebbetzin Chyena Yusewitz.

The two grew up in the close-knit Chabad community of Brooklyn, New York. Like many Chabad couples, they wanted to start their own center. After hearing about Grass Valley in 2016, they decided to check it out.

“We realized there was a need,” the rabbi notes. “We said, ‘Let’s go make a Hanukkah party… in downtown Nevada City.’ The moment we arrived, Robinson Plaza was filled. About 170 people showed up. So that was it. We started making plans, and we never looked back.”

In the beginning, the Yusewitzes held Shabbat dinners and other activities in their small rented home. Eventually, they bought a larger house that allowed for bigger gatherings. Last Passover, they put up a tent to accommodate 100 attendees. For kosher food, a few times a year the rabbi will special-order shipments of meat for the handful of congregants who keep kosher. (Others drive an hour to Trader Joe’s to purchase kosher products.)

“Part of what’s beautiful is that people appreciate the very close access and connection to the rabbi and rebbetzin,” Yusewitz says. “There’a homey feeling, experiencing a Jewish home. People feel special.”

The couple also opened a preschool, in Hebrew called a gan. One of the teachers, Chicago-born Bayla Levi, is a recent transplant to Nevada City. She remembers her first visit to the region — a “recon mission” she called it, to determine whether to move there — when she realized a bustling Jewish community called Nevada City home.

“It was around Rosh Hashanah,” she recalls. “As my friend showed me around, I looked down the bridge on Broad Street. There was Rabbi Nochum with his shofar and people leading tashlich,” the High Holiday tradition of throwing crumbs into a moving body of water. “Standing on the bridge were about 50 or 60 people.”

Weekly Parsha class. (Photo/Courtesy Chabad of Grass Valley)
Weekly parsha class. (Photo/Courtesy Chabad of Grass Valley)

That helped seal the deal, and for two years Levi has called Nevada City home. She grew up in an observant home rich with Yiddishkeit, so she feels comfortable with Chabad’s brand of Orthodox Judaism. She will soon begin her second year teaching in the gan. Her younger daughter, Noa, volunteered with the Chabad summer camp for toddlers this year.

Levi notes that among the recent Jewish transplants is a growing number of Israeli expats. “Most of the kids at the gan are Israelis,” she adds, “because they are very connected to the tradition. Even if they’re secular, they will put their kid in the two weeks of Jewish camp.”

On one excursion this summer, Rabbi Yusewitz took his campers to the historic Jewish cemetery in Nevada City, which was established in 1854 and performed its last burial in 1890.

“We did a cleanup,” he says. “It’s a bit neglected so we brought gloves, rakes and garbage bags. We said a prayer. It was very special for them to connect to this place with a rich Jewish history.”

Though names like Adolph Sutro and Levi Strauss come to mind when thinking of California’s pioneer Jews, plenty of other colorful characters came to Grass Valley and Nevada City to take advantage of the gold in them thar hills.

Jedidiah Watson, 42, a fifth-generation Grass Valley resident, descends from one of them. Though he’s lived all around the world, Watson returned to Grass Valley and now devotes free time to preserving the storied Jewish history of his hometown.

Benjamin Nathan, Watson’s great-great-great-grandfather, sailed around South America’s Cape Horn and ended up in Grass Valley.

“He established a prominent mercantile business there, and in 1856 he sold it but kept acquiring gold mines. He passed away in 1873, and he is buried there,” Watson says.

A receipt from Jedidiah Watson's great-great-grandmother's brother's company, Nathan's Dry Goods and Carpets. (Photo/Courtesy Jedidiah Watson)
A receipt from Jedidiah Watson’s great-great-grandmother’s brother’s company, Nathan’s Dry Goods and Carpets. (Photo/Courtesy Jedidiah Watson)

During Nathan’s time, the Jews of Grass Valley became leading merchants of dry goods, tobacco, food, clothing and mining equipment. According to the Nevada County Historical Society, Jews established the Shaar Zedek Hebrew Benevolent Society and a B’nai B’rith-affiliated lodge. They also acquired land for a synagogue, though one wasn’t built.

Jews were elected to important municipal posts, such as town trustee and Nevada County treasurer, and also served in high positions with the Odd Fellows, Masons and local fire departments.

The community produced one bona fide business celebrity in Anthony Zellerbach, a Bavarian-born Jew who immigrated to Nevada County and later established a mill that launched the Crown Zellerbach paper empire.

Over time, the original Jews in the area disappeared into history.

“The Jewish community dwindled,” says Watson. “The lodge closed, the pioneers left and new people came in. We’re going through a bigger wave now with people from S.F. and L.A. moving here.”

RELATED: A road trip through Jewish Gold Country

As a board member of the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks, Watson oversees upkeep of the two local Gold Rush-era Jewish cemeteries. (The commission cares for seven such historic cemeteries across Northern California.) “I keep them maintained so the headstones don’t get degraded,” he says. “So two or three times a year I go out.”

Though he doesn’t share Watson’s multigeneration connection to the region, Zimmerman, too, has developed a passion for local Jewish history. Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, he and his family were able to immigrate to the U.S. He was raised in New Jersey, moved to San Francisco in 1969 and 10 years later bought his first home in You Bet, a former mining area east of Grass Valley.

He chairs the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission and has written articles about local Jewish history. Zimmerman also cares about the continuously evolving Jewish community of Grass Valley and Nevada City. For the most part, he says, Jews have been warmly embraced by their non-Jewish neighbors. Yet the problems of the big city have a way of leaching into rural life.

Zimmerman notes that the Grass Valley Jewish cemetery has been vandalized over the years — as have all of the county’s historic cemeteries.

Last year, a new plaque installed at Hirschman Pond honoring Leb Hirschman (1823-1893), a prominent successful Jewish mine owner, was splashed with red paint. “The county cleaned it right away,” Zimmerman says of the plaque. “I attribute the vandalism to the usual: drugs, homelessness. By and large everyone gets along here really well.”

The defaced plaque at Hirschman's Pond in Nevada County. (Screenshot/CBS Sacramento)
The defaced plaque at Hirschman’s Pond. (Screenshot/CBS Sacramento)

Yusewitz echoes that sentiment.

“We have very positive relations,” the rabbi says. “I consider myself part of the Grass Valley community. I have many friends in the larger community, and in general the people here are very special, very supportive.”

And then there’s the terrain. Forest land, hiking trails, rivers and deep peace and quiet are all within walking distance.

“It’s very beautiful,” says Levi of her adopted hometown. “Everywhere there are trees. We can walk to lakes, to the Yuba River. A lot of the buildings are historical, and you get that Wild West feeling.”

But to Yusewitz, the scenery is less important than the community he serves.

“We love it,” he says of living in the foothills. “But that’s just a perk. Being able to watch a beautiful thriving Jewish community: There’s nothing to compare it to.”

Correction: A sentence misstating Nevada County’s vote count in the 2020 presidential election was deleted at 6:15 p.m. Aug. 7. The county voted 56.15% for Joe Biden.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.