Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami to mark 70 years
Published: Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 3:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 at 7:27 a.m.
It's not as though Evelyn Gurevitch was without family as the young Los Angeles native acclimated 70 years ago to country life on the great expanse of farmland just south of Santa Rosa.
She and her late husband, Leo, had a toddler, Eleanor, and it wouldn't be long before the arrival of a son, Russ.
Almost family were the first few hens the couple raised as they established themselves among the Jewish ranchers who throughout the first half of the 20th Century produced eggs or poultry on a multitude of ranches in Petaluma, Cotati and Santa Rosa.
“We raised 10,000 chickens on this property at one time,” Gurevitch said at the kitchen table of her home on Mountain View Avenue. She liked the birds and, scanning the backs of her hands, noted, “I still have the scars.”
At age 22, in 1944, she had a growing family and plenty of work to do. Having grown up in what was at the time the predominately Jewish L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights, she was too busy as a wife, mother and rancher to realize there was a void in her life in Santa Rosa.
Then she learned that shortly before her arrival, leaders among the city's relative handful of Jews — among them merchant Fred Rosenberg, wool buyer Louis Shapiro and liquor-store owner Irving Klein — had incorporated the Santa Rosa Jewish Community Center. That development in 1943 was a big step in the evolution of a cluster of Jews becoming a congregation.
Gurevitch met other Jewish people and in 1946 welcomed the dedication of a small synagogue on Orchard Street as the city's first all-family gathering place for Jews. Previously, the holiday services and other meetings held at halls or in a simple shul adjacent to a Jewish-owned tannery were largely restricted to men.
In the years following World War II, the Orchard Street temple became a genuine community center.
“There were about 40 families at that time,” Gurevitch said.
“We were like one big family. We had picnics, and potlucks.” Desiring more space for a religious school and other children's activities, Gurevitch recalled, “The men built on a big room in the back — before anyone knew about permits!”
After the better part of two decades on Orchard Street, members pooled enough money to build a new synagogue on Mayette Avenue — Temple Beth Ami.
Dedicated in late 1963, its members now call it Congregation Beth Ami. Gurevitch will be the senior member honored there on Sunday, Feb. 23, at a champagne brunch celebrating the congregation's first 70 years.
At nearly 92, she has been a stalwart and a keeper of records since the early days.
“My husband taught in the religious school,” she said, noting that Leo died two years back. “When my children were old enough to teach, they taught religious school.
“Everything, socially and religiously, anything that went on, we were there,” she said. “It's a very vital, vibrant community.”
She stayed with the conservative congregation when, in 1974, a group of 11 Jewish families founded the reform, or more liberal, Congregation Shomrei Torah. Its members shared a building with Christ Church United Methodist on Yulupa Avenue for 30-plus years before moving into its own synagogue on Bennett Valley Road in 2007.
Though Santa Rosa's Jewish community split into two congregations 40 years ago, Gurevitch said, “We still are very good friends.”
She observed that her daughter, Eleanor Cohen, belongs to both congregations.
As has been her practice for most of the past seven decades, Gurevitch drives each Saturday morning to Beth Ami, taking along something for the potluck the follows the service. She often takes along anyone who needs a ride.
Though 91, she regularly visits fellow congregation members who are younger but ailing or desirous of a bit of company.
Even after all these years in the life of the Beth Ami community, Gurevitch said, “I can call anybody and say, 'I need you' and they'll be here.”
And it's quite clear that everyone in the extended family knows they can call on her.
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