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Alpine Jewish Connection
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2005 blog


The Jewish connection in 
the town of Alpine, Calif.

San Diego Jewish Times, May 22, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison
During a break in last year’s Rosh Hashanah services at Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego, Olga Worm and Judith Steinberg discussed the fact that they often felt isolated in the mountain town of Alpine, about 22 miles east.. They knew that Marilyn Forstot, another member of the congregation, lived in Alpine, but they wondered if they and their families were “the only Jews there?”

They decided to find out—and what they learned may prove an inspiration for Jews who live in other San Diego County communities where there are no synagogues.  As it turned out, there were quite a few other landsmen living in Alpine who were anxious to develop Jewish friendships.

Worm, who is in her sixth year as San Diego chapter president of the National Council of Jewish Women, is a born organizer, so she and the others gathered leads from various Jewish organizations on possible Jewish families in the Alpine area and mailed them flyers.  They also posted the flyers in places in Alpine they thought Jews might frequent—such as the grocery store and library.

The wording of the flyer began: “Are you Jewish and live in Alpine or East County?  Did you think you were the only Jews in Alpine?  Would you enjoy meeting your fellow Jewish neighbors?   Please call: The Alpine Jewish Connection…619-445-2714.”  Similar notices were placed in this newspaper as well as in the East County Gazette

About 25 people attended he first event—a Thanksgiving “meet and greet,” held at Worm’s hillside home where she and husband Oscar raise llamas and grow vegetables.  It was billed as a dairy potluck, and on the very day it occurred, Worm received a call from Heinz Rusheen, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who had worked as a chef in New York.  He was so excited about the group that after saying hello, he went home to get some strudel he had baked.  When he brought it back, the Worms warmed it up in their oven—to everyone’s delight.

In December, the group had a latke party, attracting more members—many of whom needed to be assured they didn’t have to be “religious” to attend.  In January, the Alpine Jewish Connection had a Tu b’Shevat party, and as a mitzvah project planted a tree at the home of a Catholic family that had lost its home in the October 2003 wildfires. 

In February, the group went to the Viejas Indian Reservation for a Valentine’s Day dance.  There was a Purim party in March.  In April there was a second-night seder.  This month there was a joint meeting with The Alpine Historical Society, Alpine Friends of the Library, and Alpine Women’s Club.  I can testify personally about the joint meeting, as I was privileged to be the speaker, telling about my book, Louis Rose, San Diego’s First Jewish Settler and Entrepreneur.  On June 5, the group will hear from Ike Aranne, who will tell of his experiences running the British blockade of Palestine on the Exodus—a tale made famous by the book by Leon Uris.

While not everyone shows up at every event, Worm said, the organization has grown to about 40 families or 80 members, bringing together numerous people who thought they were the only Jews in Alpine.  It turned out that one particular street in that community has three Jewish homes, with two of them directly across from each other, Worm said.  The people had a nodding acquaintance but neither knew the other was Jewish. 

I was happy to tell the Alpine residents that on his way to San Diego from Texas in 1850, Rose followed the route that leads through their area, descending the Cuyamacas to Lakeside and El Cajon. 

Over the years, other Jews also came to Alpine, including  San Diego department store owner I.T. Davidson, one of the people who helped to found Tifereth Israel in 1905 (this is the congregation’s centennial year.)  In 1906, Davidson purchased a 187-acre fruit ranch that he named Davidsville.  He had thousands of trees.

Several years ago, I interviewed Sheba Penner, the widow of Rabbi Samuel Penner of Congregation Beth Tefilah (which later merged into Ohr Shalom Synagogue).  The couple had a home-away-from-home in Alpine, where Sheba introduced her Brooklyn-born husband to some simple country joys, like sitting on the lawn with his back against a tree and just watching the sky.  The rabbi also enjoyed entertaining numerous friends in Alpine, among them the late Dr. Jonas Salk, world-renowned discover of the polio vaccine. Penner and Salk used to dialogue on the relationship between science and religion.

I asked Worm whether she thought the Jewish Connection would evolve into a congregation. “No,” she responded adamantly, “that’s not what the people want.”  What they want—and what they are getting—is a new group of friends, people with common backgrounds, with whom they can share cultural and social events.

There are three age groups involved in the Jewish Connection—teenagers, who helped put on the recent Purimshpiel; middle-agers like the three women who helped found the organization, and seniors like Rusheen. Besides making friends among their peers, members of the three age groups are getting to know each other.