Lesli & The Founding of CJC
by Annie Blair- Researched and written for Lesli’s Shloshim Service, June 23, 2013
When asked to speak on the early days of CJC, I started by looking up the definition of “founder” in my Webster’s Dictionary. After listening to Jhos for well over a decade teach about the complexity of words, I knew that there was more to this term than one might expect.
Founder- one who works in a foundry
Foundry – a place where metal is forged or cast
Foundation – a base upon which a structure is built
Lesli’s legacy was forging the base for CJC. Her medium was not steel, copper, or bronze. It was people. I suppose you could say – she truly was a founder.
Early CJC? Well there was no matzos in Safeway for Passover. There was no Torah nestled lovingly in our ark. There was no ark. But, there was Lesli.
Lesli described herself as a radical feminist in the 1960’s and 70’s who wanted nothing to do with male gender based Judaism. Searching to fill a spiritual gap in her life, she started attending services at a Jewish Renewal Shul in Berkeley where she found women actively engaged in all aspects of Jewish ritual and practice. Lesli said, “I feel that the feminist part of me, the woman part of me and the Jewish part of me, are not actually parts, but ALL ME, a Jewish feminist woman.”
Lesli moved from Berkeley to the Coastside in 1989 with her young daughter Loryn. Along with several Jewish Coastside moms, whom she met at a Foster City Synagogue, she helped organize a Chanukah party in 1990. The following year, now armed with a mailing list and an ad in the HMB Review, Lesli organized the second Chanukah Party, although it is often referred to as the first Chanukah Party. The party was a huge success, with 80 people showing up. And thus was coined the phrase, “I though I was the only Jew on the Coast.”
In her own words, Lesli said: “ Before I moved to the Coastside, it had never occurred to me that I would deeply miss the viability and accessibility of other Jews. Actually I never even considered whether there would be other Jews here. Unconsciously, I suppose, I’ve taken for granted that there are Jews everywhere.”
Well she found us: most of us were unaffiliated with other synagogues, many were from interfaith families, inter-racial families, LGBT folks, many had little or no background in Judaism, some had close ties to Judaism, some had rejected organized religion all together, some like myself practiced home based rituals so our children could grow up with a Jewish identity. If you were eclectic in your practice, had no practice at all, or were Jewishly challenged in any way …then CJC was for you.
By 1992 there was a Steering Committee. According to Rachael Gershenson it was called a steering committee because, “A Board of Directors sounded too organized and we didn’t want to sound too organized and turn people off.” Another Chanukah party was planned and a Purim party as well. By 1993 Jews on the Coastside started gathering in people’s homes to welcome the Sabbath. The practice of lay leadership still remains a core value of CJC.
But Lesli wasn’t satisfied. So she wrote letters to local rabbis asking for help. She got a great response from Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. Rabbi Berg sent us an assistant rabbi one Friday a month and offered administrative support. Holy Family offered us a home. This church made our banner for us. They welcomed a mezuzah on their door. And 20 years later we still call Holy Family our shul.
But Lesli was far from done. She was tenacious, stubborn, prickly, and a force to be reckoned with when it came to her vision of the Coastside Jewish Community.
In 1995 Lesli found a Hebrew teacher for a small group of our young teenagers, my daughter included. Norman Katz was a Jewish educator who traveled from Sacramento every other Sunday to teach our kids, first in Lesli’s home and then in a small donated office behind the Zaballa House.
In 1996 our first Passover Seder was held in the spring and in 1997 our first Sukkoth was celebrated. And to everyone’s dismay…a Board of Directors was formed with Lesli as the first President. The Hebrew School, then at Montara Gardens, continued. Five students went on to have their bar or bat Mitzvah from this cohort group; Loryn was one of them, as was Josh Walters.
The first formal CJC Newsletter (it was actually the second newsletter) came out in February 1997. With an apologetic tone, Lesli informs everyone that we cannot depend on Temple Beth El forever, and that it was time to charge dues: $18.00 per family for the year.
1998 found CJC finally hiring a very part time Rabbi. Yes, she was a young, lovely, pregnant, student Rabbi, but Serena Eisenberg was perfect for us. And for the first time ever, High Holy Day Services were held here in Half Moon Bay in the old Methodist Church, using a borrowed Torah from Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco, and a cantor we found through the internet. Lesli sang in the choir, not very well. We actually had a choir then. The same year, Lesli stepped down from the Presidency and Marv Silverman took the helm.
Rabbi Serena stayed with us for a year and a half but before she left to continue her rabbinical studies in Israel, she gave us Jhos whom we hired in 2000. Julie arrived in 2001, and our Torah, with great ceremony arrived with same year. And that was just our first decade.
Lesli said that she wanted a synagogue in her own backyard and to this end Coastside Jewish Community was forged and thrived.