Sonoma County Jews celebrate opening of Chabad Jewish Center

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Sonoma County’s Jewish faithful gathered Sunday in east Santa Rosa to celebrate what they called a miracle and new chapter in Judaism: the opening of the city’s newest synagogue, the Joseph Weingarten Chabad Jewish Center.

Hundreds of guests tried to dodge the hot afternoon sun during the hourlong ceremony outside the center, adjacent to the Social Advocates for Youth Dream Center. The event included a mix of speakers, including Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky, who oversees the county’s Hasidic movement. He told jokes and shared stories of perseverance to complete the project, years in the making.

“We’ve been through hoops and hurdles, but it’s all worthwhile to able to get to this moment here today,” Wolvovsky told the audience as his wife, Altie, looked on. “The fact that we still gather and celebrate and show our true strength in today’s day and age is testimony to the eternal value of the Jewish people. As we stand and gather here today, once again it is clearly on display.”

His brother, Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky, of Glastonbury, Connecticut, sounded the Shofar, an ancient Jewish instrument typically made from a ram’s horn, to help signify the momentous occasion.

Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky and his wife arrived in the county more than 15 years ago to lead the local orthodox branch of Judaism, and had sought a permanent location for their community for more than a decade.

The modern-day sanctuary was made possible by donations. Monroe Wingate and his wife, Peggy, of Chico, donated the 3,500-square-foot Summerfield Road building, while financial gifts from the greater community totaling more than $175,000 helped with the remodeling.

Monroe Wingate recalled his father, Joseph Weingarten, whom the center was named after, as a moral compass and peacemaker in his community.

“My dad was the kindest, most honest man I think I’ve ever known. I miss him every day,” said Wingate, who previously lived in Sonoma. “On the weekends, he loved to come to Wine Country, and he loved this town, so this is fitting.”

Wingate’s nephew, Tom Slocum, of Houston, also attended the event. He remembered his grandfather for his deep belly laugh.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, also joined in the festivities. Many members of the synagogue wore traditional black suits and brimmed hats, while others, including bands of children, wore yarmulkes and customary tzitzit tassels under their shirts.

A l’chaim station offered a mix of wines, vodka and gin before honored guests used a set of oversized shears to cut a purple bowed ribbon across the entry door. “Mazel tov,” the ribbon-cutters shouted in unison as the ribbon floated to the ground and the doors opened. They then welcomed attendees inside for a first look at the Chabad Jewish Center, which will host educational classes, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, and services for the High Holy Days.

Rob Suttman, the Marin County architect who designed the center, called the wooden ark that houses the Torahs and the tree of life artwork that sits above it, with its branches reaching out to members of the synagogue as they arrive, “the cherry for the sundae.”

With the center’s completion, Sonoma County now counts seven synagogues.

Members of the region’s other Jewish congregations were on hand Sunday to celebrate the new synagogue.

“Rabbi Mendel and his wife, Altie, their commitment to Judaism and Jewish life is phenomenal,” said Rabbi George Gittleman of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Shomrei Torah. “I think they have made a big, positive impact in the Jewish community, and we’re better as a community having them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

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