In the 19th century thousands of Jewish families fled persecution in Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean traveling steerage class, and settled in urban areas along the east coast of the “Goldene Medina,” the Golden Land of America. Some brave and adventurous souls kept going west, making their way across this continent to our own redwood coast.
As the next century rolled by, the small Jewish community in Humboldt County thrived. In 1954 Congregation Beth El was established to provide a spiritual home, with celebration of the Sabbath, High Holidays, weddings and bar mitzvahs. On the Congregation’s 50th anniversary in 2004, the Mayor of Eureka signed a proclamation in honor of the event: “I, Peter LaVallee, and on behalf of the City Council, extend my sincere appreciation to the Jewish professionals, merchants and other community members who have contributed to the quality of life in Eureka and Humboldt County.” In 2017 we had a Jubilee celebration for the Temple Beth El building and the special guests included Wiyot tribal member Cheryl Seidner, Pastor Dan Price, Judge Christopher Wilson, Supervisor Rex Bohn, and District Attorney Maggie Fleming.
Compared to the widespread poverty and oppression in Europe, Jewish life in America has been a cornucopia of blessings. As a local rabbi I’ve been treated with courtesy and respect. It’s a joy and a privilege to share Jewish traditions with all who visit Temple Beth El. As a longtime member of the Humboldt Interfaith Fellowship and a participant in the True North Spiritual Leaders’ Caucus I enjoy deep, meaningful relationships with colleagues from other faith traditions.
But the picture of Jewish life in Humboldt County is not entirely rosy. Like other minority populations we are sometimes stereotyped and harrassed. In my two and a half decades of service to Temple Beth El, from time to time I have the unpleasant duty of helping families and individuals deal with local expressions of antisemitism. Members of the Congregation have been subject to derogatory remarks and shocked by offensive materials circulated by locals online. Some incidents are simply the result of poor judgement or manifestations of implicit bias, the preferences and prejudices that are part of our subconscious thoughts but do not reflect our personal values. But some incidents involve malicious intent. I have heard of incidents in schools, business and professional settings, and neighborhoods. Prejudice against Jews may come from people on the political left, center or right, and from members of other minorities.
County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck recently charged that he has been treated differently from other heads of County departments due to his Jewishness and his wife’s leadership in our local NAACP. This is a serious charge and must be addressed. We would like to think that the people working in County government ascribe to the highest values of fairness and impartiality, but it would be naive to assume that County government is immune to prejudice.
Thankfully cases of antisemitic vandalism or threats to the safety of the Jewish community have been few and far between. When they do arise, we take them very seriously. We work closely with the Eureka Police Department and appreciate the support they offer. Over 150 representatives from diverse faith communities came together recently at a forum on safety in houses of worship where presenters included police chiefs of Arcata, Eureka and Fortuna, Sheriff Honsal, local and Bay Area agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Though all houses of worship are at risk, the dangers to synagogues, mosques and African-American churches was emphasized. I commend Office Enoch Ibarra for organizing the event.
After the tragic shooting in a Pittsburg synagogue last fall, Temple Beth El appreciated strong support from the community at large at a memorial service led by Jeff Blanck, as I was in Toronto for the Parliament of the Worlds’ Religions. This winter we co-sponsored a series of programs with the NAACP and were pleased to have robust attendance. I feel confident that the vast majority of our fellow citizens respect our traditions and appreciate the role the Jewish community plays in Humboldt County.
This is the Passover season when Jewish families gather for a special ritual meal and retell the ancient story of the Exodus, our ancestors escape from slavery in Egypt. In Hebrew the name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, meaning “the narrow place.” Only by liberating ourselves from narrow-mindedness and prejudice can we bring about the safe, wholesome society we all long to pass down to future generations.
Rabbi Naomi Steinberg serves as the Rabbi for Temple Beth El in Eureka and B’nai ha-Aretz in Redway, and teaches classes on Judaism in the Religious Studies department at Humboldt State University.