'We Just Have Faith': Gold Country Jewish Community Strives to Connect Through COVID

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fruits and nuts, including oranges and olives, are seen on paper plates at a celebration in 2020, before the pandemic
Celebrating the Tu BiShvat holiday, called the 'Jewish Arbor Day,' includes eating fruits and nuts indigenous to the Holy Land. Members of the tight-knit Mother Lode Jewish Community in Tuolumne County are trying to stay connected despite the pandemic. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

In February 2020, about 25 members of the Mother Lode Jewish Community gathered at a house in the town of Sonora, a gold country community in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Tuolumne County.

They held a seder, eating fruits and nuts indigenous to the Holy Land, shared a potluck and planted a cherry tree. They were celebrating the Jewish holiday Tu BiShvat, a time to gather around food, and to honor the time of year the earliest-blooming trees emerge in Israel.

This year, the holiday begins the evening of Sunday, Jan. 16. Rabbi Andra Greenwald explained that, in these times, it's like a Jewish Arbor Day.

“And it's been said that the act of planting a tree is in and of itself an act of faith," she said. "We never really know, do we, whether we'll have sun or rain. We just have faith."

Celebrating holidays like these in rural areas like Tuolumne County is different from how it is in California’s cities. The closest synagogues are in Stockton and Modesto, over an hour away. So more than 30 years ago, a few families nearby organized the Mother Lode Jewish Community. Now, membership in the MLJC includes more than 100 people from four counties. Their rabbi comes in from Modesto for some holidays and services. Under normal conditions, the group meets at least once a month.

The Tu BiShvat gathering in 2020 was the last time the group met in person. As with so many groups across the state, the COVID pandemic has made connection difficult. Out of caution, the MLJC has continued to meet remotely throughout the pandemic. They have a lot of older members, some who are immunocompromised. Some members have rushed to get vaccinated and boosted, while others have chosen not to be vaccinated. And that's common for the area — about 50% of Tuolumne County residents are fully vaccinated, compared with over 70% of Californians. With members not all agreeing on COVID, will the group be able to retain its family-like feel?

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A long history

sign reading 'Pioneer Jewish Cemetery' hangs from tree with green grass and cemetery visible in background
The first Jewish people came to Sonora, in rural Tuolumne County, in 1849. This cemetery was built a few years later. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

This area of California has had a Jewish population since the Gold Rush. The Pioneer Jewish Cemetery, on a quiet block in Sonora next to the sheriff’s station, is about 170 years old.

Pat Perry, the historian for the city of Sonora, explains that the first Jews to arrive were single men, fleeing persecution and restrictions in Germany, France, Poland and later Russia. Most came to be merchants rather than miners. A community of over 100 people developed in Tuolumne County.

'A connection I can't explain'

profile of woman with long brown hair at home, standing in front of yellow wall
JoLynn Miller says she'll 'fight like hell' to retain the family feel of the Mother Lode Jewish Community, despite members’ different responses to COVID. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

For JoLynn Miller, the cemetery provides a link between the Jewish communities of the Gold Rush era and today.

“There's a connection that I can't explain," she says.

Miller moved to Tuolumne County nearly 10 years ago to work with kids in 4H, and felt adopted into the MLJC soon afterward. A Southern California native, Miller grew up Jewish by family tradition — "Jew-ish," she jokes — but she became more connected to a Jewish community after she moved and discovered the MLJC. Before, she’d never celebrated Tu BiShvat — now it’s one of her favorite holidays.

“It really, for me, connects the cyclical nature of life along with the Jewish calendar, along with the agricultural world,” she said.

She says she’ll “fight like hell” to retain the family feel of the MLJC, despite the members’ different responses to COVID: “How do we move forward trying to be respectful of everybody, knowing that the way that this is all turned out is so polarizing?”

'There is a heart connection'

profile shot of woman with long brown hair standing in front of pine tree outside
Theda Wagner, originally from Kentucky, says she always felt at home in the Mother Lode Jewish Community. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Theda Wagner was born in Kentucky into a Baptist family, then joined the Seventh-day Adventists, but she had influential adults in her life who were Jewish. When she had kids, she sent them to Hebrew school to understand the Judeo part of Judeo-Christianity. And when she met her current husband, one connection was their interest in learning more about Judaism.

"So we just are now on the journey, side by side," she says.

And being on that journey in Tuolumne County, for them, means commitment. “It's easier to just show up and sit in a pew and be passive, but that's not where we've been placed.”

Three generations of her family gather for Shabbat dinner. They host Saturday religious services — “and then we eat,” she says with a laugh. Wagner says she always felt at home in the MLJC.

“You may not be on the same page religiously or politically or anything else, but there is a heart connection,” she said.

'We cherish our time together'

profile shot of woman in colorful clothes standing in front of purple curtain, smiling
Gat Slor joined the MLJC after moving to Sonora from the Bay Area. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Gat Slor moved to Sonora from the Bay Area, where there’s a much larger Jewish community — but she says she loves the diversity of this group: interfaith couples, younger people and older, political conservatives, liberals, people that are observant and some that are "submarine Jews" who surface at Passover and the Jewish new year.

“It feels like we cherish our time together,” she says, “even though we're all very different. It feels like they're kind of my gang, my people.”

She found a small silver lining in remote gatherings of the MLJC. She says, in the past, for Passover, “I'd be like, ‘Well, I'll buy a box of matzos and I'm good.’ This time I kind of had to be responsible. I made my own chicken soup. So that was really cool. I had to kind of grow up and not expect the community to feed me.”

But, for a while now, she’s wanted the MLJC to start meeting in person, and not just stay on Zoom: “Some of us have met, but it hasn't been official. So that part, it's a little tricky. I don’t like being divided. We’re already divided by different things. And we still love each other.”

She says they’re not going to agree on everything, “but I hope that we can forgive each other.”

'[COVID] has not stopped us, and it won't'

older woman wearing bright blug and smiling relaxes on her couch at home, petting a small white dog
Ruth Perrin, 85, says Jews have had to find a way to practice their religion under adverse circumstances over centuries, 'and that's what we're doing now.' (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Eighty-five-year-old Ruth Perrin converted to Judaism five years ago. She says the MLJC gives her a sense of belonging.

“Sharing of experiences, sharing of our beliefs, and acknowledgment to one another and to myself that I am, in fact, for lack of a better word, a practicing Jew," she says.

Given the pandemic circumstances, “I think we've managed quite well," she adds.

"It has affected how we commune, how we gather as a group, but [COVID] has not stopped us, and it won't. Through the centuries, Jews have had to find a way to practice their religion under adverse circumstances. And that's what we're doing now."

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