Gan HaLev: A quarter-century of community

09/28/2017

The bond between the new year and the old was sealed in song. Last Wednesday, Rabbi Meredith Cahn led a congregation of more than 40 in a lilting melody—“lye lye lye…”—while a pair of guitarists gently strummed under a blue stained-glass Star of David. 

Afterwards, a blow into a shofar, a traditional instrument made from a ram’s horn, triggered light laughter. “Do we feel peaceful now?” Rabbi Cahn asked, seizing upon the humorous moment. 

The evening celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a week known as the High Holy Days. It’s a time meant to reflect on the past while embracing hopes for the future; for Gan HaLev, it also marked a 25th anniversary. West Marin’s independent Jewish congregation has been a source for relaxed worship and family gathering since it was founded in 1992. Either in the rooms of the San Geronimo Valley Community Center or the homes of its members, Gan HaLev has spent the last quarter of a century bringing people together to celebrate their heritage.

Suzanne Sadowsky, David Knepler, Michel Kotski and other founding members originally called themselves the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley but changed their name to Gan HaLev, meaning “garden on the heart,” a few years later. 

The group was self-organized and members decided together how they wanted to formulate their approach, which created an air of excitement and exploration. They taught what they found appealing, bucked customs to allow women to wear prayer shawls and hosted movie nights. 

“All of our lives we had tried to fit into something that was already existing and we realized, in our own native spirit, that we wanted to do something in a different way,” Mr. Knepler said. 

Laurie Chorna serves on Gan HaLev’s board and was an early member of the congregation. At the time, she had just moved to Woodacre and felt unexpected joy upon learning she wasn’t the only Jewish person in her area.

“I remember thinking ‘a Passover in the valley?’ There are other Jewish people!” she said. “I didn’t have to go over the hill, and at first we were essentially meeting in each other’s homes. It was very warm and comforting. And I didn’t even know I wanted that.”

The congregation would meet to celebrate holidays, weekly Shabbats and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. There was also a focus on providing a venue for families and investing in the next generation. Through a grant provided by founding member Penina Maier’s family foundation, Gan HaLev formed the Penina Maier Jewish School in 1995. The Sunday school taught three classes to about 30 children at its peak.

In recent years, the community group has felt the pangs of the affordable housing crisis that has limited the number of new families, shuttering the school in 2015. 

During the Rosh Hashanah service, Rabbi Cahn invited the millennials in the room to light the first candle. “I think it’s just me,” Hannah Egger-Weiler, of Lagunitas, said before walking to the altar. 

Later, Ms. Egger-Weiler said there are a couple of other 20-somethings associated with Gan HaLev, but that participation is dwindling.

“They built it for us,” she said of the older generation. “We all just ended up going to college and not coming back to the area.”

When welcoming the group to the service on Wednesday, Rabbi Cahn explained the significance of the holiday. “It’s been a difficult year for many of us,” she said. “But on the other hand we find moments of inspiration, and of hope and grace. We’re here tonight because that’s what Jews do: they come together… for seasonal spiritual work.”

As the Rosh Hashanah service came to its close, Rabbi Cahn asked members to announce the names of loved ones and friends who passed this year. Then she produced a loaf of challah and invited everyone to place a hand either on the bread or the shoulder of someone nearby to create a chain that swayed as one during a final prayer. 

“We celebrate Jewish holidays, raise our children together and bury our neighbors,” Mr. Knepler said of Gan HaLev. “It’s given a foundation for us to [connect] all of these life cycles.”

 

A Yom Kippur service starts with the Kol Nidre prayer at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29 at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. A morning service continues at 10 a.m. at the community center, led by Rabbi Meredith Cahn, with traditional and contemporary music by Carol Friedman and Mark Lerner. The day continues with Yizkor at 12:30 p.m. and Neilah at 5 p.m., followed by a potluck break-the-fast dinner, with bagels and lox provided. All are welcome. For information and suggested donations for the services, email shalom@ganhalev.org.