Jewish congregation continues 29-year tradition

By Rhoda Hamburger
   Congregation Etz Chaim, a small but active Reform Jewish congregation of about 25 families in Ramona, will celebrate the 29th anniversary of its first community Seder by inviting residents of Ramona and nearby towns to “A taste of Passover,” a potluck led by Rabbi Ben Leinow on Saturday, April 3, at 4 p.m.
   The community Seder will be held in the Rotunda, 16911 Gunn Stage Road. Everyone who attends is asked to bring a main dish or dessert adequate for eight people to share. Please be careful to observe certain dietary rules: no milk products, no leavening or beans, rice, pasta or chips and no shellfish or pork.
   Due to limited seating, reservations are requested and may be made by calling 760-789-2781. Those with reservations will be seated first.
   In the spring of 1981, when Sandy and Dr. Fred Arsham and Marcia and Cantor Al Wollner sent invitations to Jewish families announcing plans for a Passover Seder in Ramona, they didn’t know how many people to expect. To their amazement, over 60 people flocked to the community room of the North County Health Clinic, where the cantor led the Seder and Marcia and Sandy prepared the Seder plates. 
   From that gathering Congregation Etz Chiam was born (Etz Chaim is Hebrew for “Tree of Life”). They had no Torah scroll, and prayer books were loaned by a congregation in Long Beach. The first Sabbath service in June was held in the social hall of St. Mary’s in the Valley Episcopal Church with the assistance of Vicar Don Robinson, in a fine example of brotherly love and charity. At that time St. Mary’s santuary was a Quonset hut, not the beautiful ediface on 10th Street they now occupy. Student Rabbi Louis Feldstein led the first High Holy Days services at the Lutheran Church of Ramona on 16th Street.
   The second Passover Seder was held in the Pilgrim Hall of the First Congregational Church, sponsored jointly by St. Mary’s in the Valley, First Methodist Church, First Congregational Church and Congregation Etz Chaim. Members of the Pilgrim Youth Fellowship of First Congregational Church served the dinner, and the Rev. Bushman of First Congregational Church and the Rev. Don Robinson of St. Mary’s took part in the ritual readings. Approximately 250 people packed the Pilgrim Hall for the ecumenical Seder.
   In 1987, Etz Chaim received a Czechoslovakian holocaust Torah scroll that is over 150 years old. A fundraising was started to repair the scroll when it became too faint to read. Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church gave a substantial donation to the fund, thus continuing the ecumenical brotherhood shared from the time Etz Chaim began.
   Members of Etz Chaim have worked with various local groups to improve the community over the years — for example, planting trees on the campus of Hanson Lane Elementary School, donating to the Ramona Unified School District’s Plant-a-Tree campaign, selling desserts at 4th of July celebrations, helping serve dinners to the homeless at Immaculate Heart of Mary and doing prep work in the church kitchen for the Thanksgiving dinners First Methodist serves to the hungry of Ramona.
   Etz Chaim has progressed from having no rabbi to having visiting Rabbis (Harold Saperstein, Wollie Kaelter, Erwin Herman and Lenore Bohm), then having student rabbis, and finally to the present, when two rabbis (Ben Leinow and Leslie Bergson) take turns at monthly Sabbath services.
   Through it all, Marcia and Cantor Al Wollner have been the glue that has held the congregation together. At age 95, Cantor Wollner recently became Cantor Emeritus.
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The historical material in the above article was taken from interviews and scrapbooks kept by Marcia Wollner.

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