Our Historic Building & Refugee Piano

85 La Plaza was dedicated in April 1910 as the Cotati Ladies' Improvement Club. The twelve organizers and their followers made this a place of civic and charitable activity. Members would create care packages for local soldiers during both World Wars. The building went on to house Cotati's first lending library, Saturday night American Legion dances, Fire Department card games and decades of Independence Day and other holiday celebrations.

In the 1980s, the site became a major music venue, called The Cotati Cabaret. The Cabaret featured famous and soon-to-be famous singers and bands that included Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Santana, Huey Lewis, Tower of Power, John Lee Hooker, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young, Rita Coolidge, Randy Newman and thousands of rowdy patrons who contributed to the venue's closure by Cotati police in 1990.

The derelict building came into the possession of Congregation Ner Shalom in 1994. One of the synagogue's first jobs was to plug the bullet holes in the ceiling. The congregation held a capital campaign to restore the building to a workable condition. The acoustics are terrific, and Congregation Ner Shalom continues the building's legacy of charitable and civic work and of inspiring live music. In October 1994 the congregation joyfully danced its Torah scroll into the building.

In 2010, congregation members threw the doors open for a "Ten Decades" celebration, welcoming back people who remembered the days of the Ladies' Club, of the American Legion Dances, and of the Cotati Cabaret. There was even testimony from long-married couples who met at dances in this building. Slide show photos below include Bob and Alice Larsen, owners of Cotati's Larsen Feed and Pet Store, who met over 60 years ago at an American Legion dance at 85 La Plaza, and Ner Shalom members Bruce Norwitt and the late Helene Steinlauf-Norwitt, who met at the Cotati Cabaret.

The Refugee Piano

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In 2017, Ner Shalom was honored to receive the gift of a German-built, 1926 Steinway baby grand piano from donor David Salm. The piano had belonged to his mother, Erna. Erna was a promising young concert pianist in Darmstadt, Germany, in the 1930s. After Kristallnacht in 1938, Erna crated her two pianos and sent them to storage in Rotterdam. The following years were trouble: Erna’s husband Arthur was sent to Dachau; Erna was subsequently able to engineer his release, and the couple fled to the Netherlands, England and, ultimately, Chicago. There they settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood. After the War, Erna discovered that both her pianos had survived. They were shipped to Chicago, where she set up a music studio, offering lessons as well as monthly musical concerts that became a Hyde Park fixture. Many of these concerts included her children performing on various instruments; her daughter Susan went on to study at Julliard and form the world famous Raphael Trio. A frequent guest and player of the piano was Jewish liturgical composer Max Janowski, who wrote well-known and beloved settings of Avinu Malkenu and Sim Shalom, among hundreds of other compositions.

Ner Shalom is proud to be the keepers – and frequent players – of this Holocaust survivor piano, which continues to be featured in classical, jazz and folk concerts (and sometimes at services) at Ner Shalom. Read more of the piano’s story here.