Simi Valley offered the most appealing, yet affordable horse property within driving distance of downtown. Though during rush hour, that distance hardly seems driveable. At the time of our move, I dismissed my mother's concerns about Simi's rumored lack of Jewish community.
I'd always been a committed, though not extremely involved, Jew. I knew that I could pass my love of our religion and heritage along to our children whether or not the closest synagogue or kosher butcher was in our town. I carried my Judaism with me in my heart and daily household activities. I didn't need a lot of local support.
I soon learned that I was wrong in more than one respect. Simi Valley was not without a Jewish presence. While searching for a preschool for our 4-year-old daughter, I found that the Jewish Community Center in Simi ran a preschool. Small but growing, the school offered a warm environment for my child. And though my daughter was ready to take the plunge on her own, I wasn't ready to be parted from her for that amount of time and found myself becoming more and more involved in the school; first in the classroom cutting out patterns in construction paper and pouring apple juice into little cups, and then as a member of the board as the school went from being a JCC preschool to the Congregation B'nai Emet Preschool and Kindergarten.
The local synagogue in Simi Valley was also a surprise. Small but persistent, Congregation B'nai Emet's membership was determined not only to survive, but to thrive in this growing community. My husband and I debated whether or not to join CBE, a Reform congregation. I was raised Conservative, while Jon was raised Reform. I attended a Lubuvich Hebrew day school for my junior high school years and was worried that a Reform congregation would not inspire us to increase our involvement in Judaism. We considered the Conservative synagogue in the next town or an Orthodox congregation about 40 minutes away. But we knew ourselves, and realized we'd be most apt to attend services if they were in our own town. So, we joined our local reform synagogue. I expected to be less than challenged.
I came to the unexpected realization that I had drifted from Judaism during my college and post-graduate years. I was also surprised by the amount of dedication the synagogue inspired in our family. Between the songs and prayers our children were bringing home from the preschool and the family-like welcomeness and accessibility of Congregation B'nai Emet, our Jewishness was becoming more and more pervasive in our daily life. I started making challah on Friday night and avoided making plans to ride my horse on Saturdays. I began teaching third-grade at CBE's religious school. The fact that both were small and in great need of member participation contributed to my desire to become involved in the preschool and synagogue.
I can understand the attraction of a large congregation in a city with a big Jewish population. In such a city, there seems to be something specifically designed for every Jewish need. However, some people find great size in a synagogue, and the often accompanying grandeur, intimidating. A smaller congregation in a smaller community invites a somewhat shy but concerned person like myself to play an important role in the growth of the Jewish life. In a large congregation, even if a member is active, it can be easy to get lost in the crowd. When the crowd is small, one can't help but stand out.