A community gathers for an ancient celebration: Passover


Making an ancient celebration more relevant to today, Rabbi Steve Finley of Sonoma’s Shir Shalom asked those gathered for the traditional Seder, “What are the plagues of today that are impacting our world?” Taking a moment away from the reciting of the telling of the “Plagues of Egypt” when Moses lead the Israelites out of the land of the Pharaohs, Finley brought into focus our contemporary times.

One of a dozen tables ready and set for Passover celebration at Shir Shalom of Sonoma this past April 20

About 100 attendees for Seder this past April 20 at Burlingame Hall on Spain Street, were eager to respond to his question. Some said “homelessness” Another said, “climate change” and a few others said “greed.”

Still, Finley wanted to convey that even though the story of Passover has been told countless times down through the centuries, its deeper meanings are always fresh for people of faith.

“It’s a miracle that the Jewish people are still here, he said despite the many attempts by various regimes over the centuries to wipe us out.”

This year’s Passover celebration was open to all – Jewish as well as non-Jewish as the Shir Shalom community has been eager to share Jewish culture with the greater community. And, the community considers the recent trip to Israel, sponsored by the congregation as auspiciously appropriate to have coincided with Passover.

Rabbi Finley added. “We got back from Israel just in time for Passover, so we can share with the greater community our renewed sense of faith. The trip was awesome, and we were so blessed to be there.”

Among those new to this experience of Passover and Seder besides this reporter, were long-time Sonoma resident Mary Oswald. “Oh, I attended a Passover celebration once before many years ago, she said. But nothing like this, a catered event, how nice!”

Park Avenue Catering of Sonoma and Napa, headquartered in Cotati did all the anticipated traditional foods, like Gefilte Fish, Matzoh Ball Soup and the symbolic Seder plate.

The four bottles of wine on each table and the mixture of minced apple with nuts, honey and cinnamon were also included. A meal where those gathered say prayers, sing songs and eat, raising their glasses to sip and savor both the sacred and the human story which is the Jewish faith.

Michelle Samson who serves on the Shir Shalom council and board said that sharing Passover and other holidays together builds community. “Our congregation is growing little by little. But what is growing the most is our sense of community and caring for one another.”

Despite its prestige as a premiere wine growing and agricultural region, attracting people from all over, the presence of Jewish people in Sonoma has been relatively modest and low-key.

Whether they were chicken farmers in Petaluma or ‘mom & pop’ deli and grocery store owners in Agua Caliente, Jewish people have been part of the fabric of Sonoma and wine country for decades. 

It has only been in the past 25 years or so, that a congregation like Shir Shalom has been able to become firmly established in the heart of Sonoma, beyond simply being a meeting hall or “community center.”

“This congregation means a great deal to me,” said Bonnie Walner who like the Samson’s and others came to Sonoma over five years ago. Finding comfort in one another in a place like Sonoma, that is not as diverse as let’s say Chicago or Detroit where Samson is from, Shir Shalom is welcoming. Or as some noted, “sort of like a coming home.”

This past January Walner remembered her Bat Mitzvah with a special anniversary celebration held at Shir Shalom. “The experience was truly over the top,” she told the Sonoma Valley Sun. While festive more than solemn the service held for her a deep spiritual meaning. “It was an amazing and magical experience,” Walner said.

And with the encouragement and help of Rabbi Finley, the 60th anniversary of a Bat Mitzvah, was just as important and vital to the community as one who is commemorating it for the very first time, coming of age in a community of faith.

Eager to share her life with the congregation and the greater community, Walner is among the first to greet people and introduce them to any and everyone in a circle. Or in this case as it was this past April 20, at Seder table #4.

More than a dozen tables filled the hall and each one was ready and set for Passover as attendees arrived at 5:30 that Saturday evening. “We share the food, we express the faith but most of all we come together and build community,” Walner said.

Any opportunity she sees to help people connect whether it be for an event, like Passover, a charity like the Creekside Community fundraiser this past February or a business helping another business, Walner is happy to help.

While firmly rooted in the Jewish faith and community, she sees the importance of being ecumenical as later this month she will attend a First Communion service of a family in her neighborhood. This is important, especially as recently more incidents of religious intolerance have taken place, like in Sri Lanka.

Samson also recognizes the importance of reaching out to the wider community. Yet she also knows, perhaps all too well, the risks of helping those in need. “My husband and I hired someone we knew from our hometown near Detroit, Michigan.

He was going thru hard times; he needed to work, and we needed work done on our house, painting and general contractor stuff. Well, it turned out his drug problems got the best of him and my husband and I had to ‘pick up the pieces’ as they say. It was very difficult.”

Yet, like Walner and others in the congregation, Samson understood that reaching out to others does take courage as well as faith.

Rabbi Finley believes very strongly that people from different backgrounds, especially religious backgrounds can get along and care for one another.

Finley wants to foster that here in Sonoma, especially in a prosperous and beautiful valley, the gem of Northern California’s wine country. He noted that the concept of God is a powerful concept. How such a concept/idea unfolds can be very life affirming as well as life-transforming. He hopes his congregation will be the host for many important discussions, debates and forums; helping the greater community to come together, rather than drift father apart.

As the Passover festivities wrapped up after three hours of prayers, songs, dancing and yes, eating and drinking, the congregation of Shir Shalom looks forward to another opportunity to gather. But they also want to welcome the greater community.

Passover celebration at Shir Shalom in Sonoma April 20 2019

“To let them know that we care and that it’s like being welcomed into someone’s home; that’s what a community is all about,” said Walner.

For more information about Shir Shalom visit the web site or call 707 935-3636.