At their monthly Fire & Stars gatherings, members of Zmanim usually come together at a private home for games, songs, Jewish rituals, a potluck meal, campfire and stargazing.
But not just random night sky watching. The event celebrates the end of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, defined as the time a person can see three stars in the sky without moving his or her head, signifying the end of day.
Most of the Sebastopol-based Jewish community’s events are held outside, weather permitting, because Zmanim (pronounced zma-NEEM) has no brick and mortar home, founded two years ago on the principle of reconnecting with Judaism’s ancient connection to the natural world.
Instead of in an enclosed synagogue, the community meets in members’ back yards, on ocean beaches and in parks like Ragle Ranch, Willow Creek and Laguna de Santa Rosa.
It is entirely by intention, said Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde, 43, who leads the community with her husband, Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde, 40.
The couple previously shared a rabbinical post at a Jewish congregation in Youngstown, Ohio, but grew tired of holding events inside stuffy, often windowless rooms, just as uninspiring as the settings of their childhood Jewish experiences.
“Think back to life about 2,000 years ago, when many traditions in Judaism were getting set,” Daria Jacobs-Velde said. “At that time, we were simply more connected to everything, including the rhythms of the natural world that held us.”
But the forms of Judaism developed in post-World War II suburbia were “disconnected from much of that fullness,” she said, lending a “sterility and dryness” to much of the Jewish experience. “Does that make sense?” she asked.
The au naturel approach readily applies to the Jewish practice of praying three times a day. “What if we went outside and took three deep breaths,” she said, taking note of the sun’s position, bird songs and gophers digging in the ground.
“Becoming a little bit more Dr. Doolittle-ish,” she said. “Being integrally connected with nature.”
The couple went looking for the right setting for Zmanim, which bills itself as a “nature-connected spiritual Jewish community,” and found it while visiting Daria’s brother in Sebastopol.
Zmanim, which means seasons in Hebrew, has drawn about 300 people to its gatherings since October 2014, most of them from west county and ranging in age from infants and their parents to adults in their 70s.
The community celebrates Shabbat twice a month, on the first Friday and the third Saturday of each month, and for women’s new moon gatherings, morning Hebrew chanting groups and traditional holidays such as Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
An after-school children’s program for kids 5 to 11 meets outdoors, of course, and participants are encouraged to go barefoot, exposing them at times to prickly ground.
Zmanim will celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah on Dec. 30 inside St. Stephens Church in Sebastopol to accommodate a large crowd, with a candle lighting, music, vegetarian potluck dinner and a “World Series of Dreidel,” a Jewish game played with spinning tops.
When people ask her why Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration, moves to a different period each year, Daria Jacobs-Velde replies that it always starts on the same date — the 25th of Kislev, the ninth month on the Jewish calendar, which is based on a lunar rather than solar cycle.