It's Friday night in Ojai, Calif., and in the Khilat HaAloneem Synagogue, just 90 minutes from the bustle of Los Angeles, the Jewish community of the Oaks is preparing for its weekly Shabbat service.
The turnout is not great tonight for this 65-odd member community; apart from my husband and I, there are only six other shul-goers this evening. But that doesn't dampen the spirits of those present.
Susan DeCordova, the synagogue's president, is strumming Hebrew tunes on her guitar, and her warm smile is instantly welcoming. "You have to stay for the Oneg after services," she insists. "I'm sponsoring it tonight, and it's old-fashioned style, with pickled herring and a challah I made myself."
The synagogue was inaugurated in 1999 in a former Baptist church, after convening for five years previously across the road in borrowed space. The congregation may have started with 40 members, but a Jewish presence in Ojai — a city of 8,000 residents, goes back much further — insists DeCordova.
"Some of the founding farming families in this town were Jewish, including the Jacobs family, that still lives here," she says. "But the early Jews who came here either didn't convene, or they chose to join larger congregations in Ventura County."
You couldn't ask for a more relaxing destination than Ojai, surrounded by the pink, dusky glow of the Topa Topa mountains. Deer wander on the manicured greens of the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, and vultures soar beneath a perfectly blue sky.
At the inn, I'm poolside in a swimsuit with an iced drink, contemplating the rainy, cold fortunes of my friends in the Pacific Northwest and on the East Coast. Ojai is a place with a distinct personality: The Spanish colonial architecture is at once dignified and intrinsically elegant. Mom-and-pop businesses line the strip with nary a chain store in sight. They sell expensive jewelry, boutique-style clothing and handblown glassware surrounded by "Do Not Touch" signs. I wonder how they will survive the economic recession.
The town has a strong Hispanic influence, in addition to an interesting history. The expansive grounds of the Ojai Valley Inn, with its golf course that meanders over some 220 acres, was a training camp for the U.S. military during World War II.
Ojai likely looked much the same then as it does today, except that military tents and horses trampled the golfing holes designed some 20 years earlier by George C. Thomas.
Now those greens have been restored, and the inn expanded to include more than 300 rooms, a spa, four restaurants and an artist cottage.
Creativity is a key word in Ojai, where a community of artists, writers and craftsmen prevails.
"I love it here," confesses DeCordova during the Oneg. "I can send my kids downtown and know they'll never get into any trouble because they can't help but know half the people they bump into. There's not much anonymity here, which is something I happen to like a lot."
Celebrities also flock to Ojai. Until recently, Ellen de Generes had a residence here, and couples like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston — in happier days — were frequent visitors at the inn.
They came for the privacy and seclusion offered beneath the oaks and eucalyptus trees that pepper this massive property. Perhaps they indulged in the mud-smearing treatment known as Kuyam, at the spa.
Or maybe they invited friends to join them and rented the Casa Elar, a private, fenced-in property villa that gives new meaning to the word luxury. Built for and by the Chicago-based Jewish Crown family, which owns the Ojai Inn, among a slew of other significant assets, the Casa recently opened to the public, available for a mere $15,000 per night.
To learn more about the area, go to: www.ci.ojai.ca.us. For details on the inn, visit: www.ojairesort.com.