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El Cerrito rabbi welcomes all with an open-gate policy

by dan pine
staff writer

With sunset approaching, 20 curious Jews, potluck lasagnas in hand, squeezed into the El Cerrito headquarters of JGate, ready to welcome Shabbat.

For Rabbi Bridget Wynne, it was another crowded house.

Wynne created JGate to provide a gateway into Jewish life for unaffiliated or disaffected Jews. She set up shop last year in a modest El Cerrito house, sharing space with Progressive Jewish Alliance. By day it’s a busy office, but come Friday nights it becomes a Jewish home, with tables set, kosher wine and challah ready to go.

“People are often afraid of getting involved with a synagogue,” said Wynne, “scared of being solicited for money, or being asked to participate in a way they’re not ready for. I wanted to find a way to help people connect without being afraid of being judged.”

The JGate Shabbat offered that no-fear zone.

Julie Pledger of Richmond came seeking connection with the Jewish community, but hadn’t known where to turn. “A friend invited me to a synagogue,” she recalled, “but it was too big a step.”

For Pledger, JGate has provided a safe haven. “I didn’t want to create another synagogue or JCC,” added Wynne. “I wanted to create an entrance.”

Before lighting the candles, Wynne asked all to stand and mention one thing for which they were grateful that week. Then the rabbi passed around the tzedakah box and led the blessings, explaining every step.

As the wine was poured, one man said, “Manischewitz is Shakespeare in a bottle.”

Wynne explained that the challah is covered to spare its feelings for coming after the candles and wine. “If we go to this extent to protect the feelings of a loaf of bread,” she said, “how much more so with people.”

During the meal, everyone chatted. Cheryl Stone, a regular attendee of the Mission Minyan in San Francisco, said she had heard good things about JGate and shlepped all the way from the city to see for herself.

As the meal wound down, Wynne and JGate administrator Bon Singer led a few Shabbat songs. Then, though Passover was long over, Wynne led a discussion about the deeper meanings of enslavement and whether the Jewish notion of freedom was different from the American.

Gradually the JGaters opened up, offering opinions and insights. They may not have attended Hebrew school or Torah study, but they knew they had a right to weigh in.

“The point is to enable people to enter the conversation wherever they are,” said Wynne. “I’m not assuming any Jewish knowledge or experience, and I make it clear that that is totally fine.”

A former pulpit rabbi in Los Angeles and Sonoma’s Shir Shalom, Wynne said the idea for JGate had been brewing for years. Often she would come across people who had had some Jewish education but who had opted out. She wanted to help them opt in again.

“Some have some kind of trauma in their past, some anti-Semitism or a feeling of being rejected by the Jewish community,” she noted. “So I finally decided I just had to start something like this.”

Seed money from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, Natembea and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay helped her get started last June. Since then, she’s hosted Shabbat dinners, lectures and other events, most of them sold out.

“I’d like to expand what we’re doing into the city,” she aid about future plans. “I’d like to make it more accessible, and in larger venues.”

As for metrics to gauge success, Wynne likes to tell stories about real people. One man had written to her, recounting how he had been dragged to shul as a youth. He no longer felt good about being Jewish, but wanted to feel good again. He decided to try a JGate Shabbat.

“He was sweating all the way here,” recalled Wynne. “It turned out great for him, and he shared this with the whole room. Later I explained the Shehechiyanu and asked him to do it. He said, ‘I’m down with that!’”

For more information, contact Rabbi Bridget Wynne at (510) 559-8140 or online at www.jgate.org.



CopyrightJ, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California