Napa Center Offers Food for Thought

September 5, 2018

Many years in the making, the Napa Center for Thought & Culture finally made its debut over the summer. The nonprofit organization is the brainchild of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley Rabbi Niles Goldstein and Board President Ellyn Elson, and is the first of its kind on the West Coast. 

Modeled on the success of venues such as New York’s 92nd Street Y and Washington D.C.’s Sixth & I, the center aims to add to the appeal of Napa as a destination, not only for its food, wine and weather, but for “the kind of intellectual and cultural offerings that feed the mind and the soul, not just the belly,” Goldstein told the Journal in a telephone interview. 

“There’s only one synagogue in town,” Goldstein said, and  “although the reach of the center would be far beyond just the Jewish community, a group of people from the synagogue said, ‘Let’s create a new organization that would be focused on exactly that.’”

The concept, he said, was to turn Napa into a place like Aspen, Colo., and its Ideas Festival, Ashland, Ore.’s Shakespeare Festival, or Park City, Utah’s Sundance Film Festival.

The seeds for the center were planted in 2011, when Elson became president of Congregation Beth Shalom. She read a study that there were around 2,400 Jews in Napa. “At that point, we only had 105 members of the synagogue,” Elson, said. “And I thought, ‘This is really ridiculous. Where are all these Jews?’”

“We don’t want the Jewish content to necessarily hit you over the head the way it does in synagogue. We want it to be a little more subtle.” — Rabbi Niles Goldstein

Speaking with people in the community, Elson discovered many considered themselves spiritual Jews who would enjoy educational programs. In February this year, she formed a committee and invited eight people to be on the task force, where they then came up with the name for the center. 

Elson thought it would take a year to get the center off the ground, but it took only 12 weeks. “Almost all of our programming is in place for the next year,” she said. 

The center’s first event was held on June 17, when it screened “Itzhak,” a documentary about renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, followed by a talk with conductor Thomas Conlin. The center followed up with a second event, the screening of “RBG,” the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on Aug. 26, followed by a panel discussion.

Both events sold out quickly and half the attendees were non-synagogue members.   

“People are really hungry to be able to listen to both the sage on the stage and have an opportunity for discussions that are meaningful, provocative and stimulating,” Elson said. “Everything that we do is based on Jewish values,” although not every program will have a Jewish piece to it.

“Our short-term plan is in our very first year to offer really compelling and engaging programs that will be reflective of the kinds of seasons that we want to have,” Goldstein said. “It’s a mixture of films, lectures, conversations and musical performances. We don’t want the Jewish content to necessarily hit you over the head the way it does in synagogue. We want it to be a little more subtle.”

Goldstein will be leading a conversation series, “The Road Not Taken,” where he’ll interview people who have chosen interesting or unusual careers. The center also has an upcoming concert on Oct. 13 with vocalist Perla Batalla, focusing on the music of Leonard Cohen.

While the center’s events will be held at the synagogue and other venues around Napa, the goal is to eventually build a conference center. Elson hopes to raise funds and have the building completed within four years.

“We hope to be a global location for these kinds of programs and that people will come to Napa as a destination,” she said. “Maybe they are coming here partially because it’s pretty, partially because of wine, but we think, most importantly, because there’s a retreat they can go to that’s going to be thought-provoking, stimulating and really maybe make an effect on their life and make it better.”

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