Stowe, Vermont overlooks Mount Mansfield, a popular skiing and hiking destination in northern Vermont. This town of 201 — where anti-Semitism was once rampant and hotels barred Jewish guests — is now home to a growing and thriving Jewish community. Some have moved here to connect with nature or take part in mountain sports, while others have come for the slower pace of life or left crowded cities during the pandemic.
Since the late 1980s, when a small group gathered for holiday meals, Greater Stowe Jewish Community has become a vibrant center of Jewish life: today, a multi-generational community of approximately 200 member units – including local farmers, urban transplants and interfaith families – hails from 15 towns as far north as 50 miles to the Canadian border. What began as a one-room religious school now offers a variety of programs for 71 children, including 11 b’nai mitzvahs planned over the next few months.
“What’s exciting is that people don’t usually move to Vermont to be Jewish,” said Rabbi David Fainsilber, who became JCOGS’s first full-time spiritual leader in 2014. He has since forged significant ties to a Jewish community. with diverse backgrounds and political beliefs; he also reached out to the wider interfaith community, engaging his followers in volunteer work, such as at the local homeless shelter. “We have struck a good balance between supporting our Jewish community and the outside community in terms of programs and services.
“Rabbi David made it a very inclusive community. He leads from a platform of positivity and possibility. I love his music and the sense of joy he brings to services,” said Marcie Scudder, who moved here in 2015 from a large Jewish community outside of Boston. His late mother, Roselle Abramowitz, helped found the Stowe community after retiring from Montreal in the 1980s.
There is vibrant Jewish life in northern New England today, in small communities in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. “Our communities are vibrant and thriving even though they look very different from Jewish communities in suburban and urban areas,” said Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life in Colby and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, a curator. synagogue in Waterville, Maine, with a large proportion of interfaith families (over 80%) as well as Jews by choice (20%). “We try to bring all the diversity of Jewish life here. If you’re not trying to create a home for diversity in Jewish beliefs and diversity, then you’re narrowing your reach.
But the northern New England community also faces many challenges: a diverse and geographically dispersed population, few Jewish professionals, limited financial resources, and a lack of institutions such as JCCs, federations, and day schools. . “In Maine, it gets dark early in the winter and it’s hard for people to get here,” said Rabbi Erica Asch, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine — the only Reform synagogue in central Maine. – which serves 100 homes across a radius of more than 50 miles. “Like many other small communities, there are a limited number of people to keep things running.”
In these small communities, the only Jewish institution for miles around, the synagogue must accommodate people from different backgrounds. “In a small community in Vermont, you have to have a broad mind about who can participate,” said Andy Robinson, president of Beth Jacob Synagogue, an egalitarian, 110-family-unit synagogue based in Montpelier and run by lay people. . Washington County in central Vermont. “We have a very inclusive view of how to be Jewish and how to identify as Jewish.” Beth Jacob has a long history of welcoming same-sex couples and interfaith families, including b’nai mitzvahs of patrilineal Jewish descent. Depending on who leads the services, worship ranges from Reform to Modern Orthodoxy, with prayer books from different denominations. “We pride ourselves on being eclectic and led by leaders,” explained Michele Clark, a New York native and a loyal follower for more than 30 years.
Elsewhere, individuals held Shabbat and holiday gatherings. The Mad River Valley Jewish Community, an informal association in Mad River Valley in central Vermont, connects 120 households through a mailing list coordinated by volunteer Susan Bauchner, a retired Jewish communal professional turned ski instructor who has left Philadelphia 19 years ago.
Jewish education is a major challenge, says Matt Boxer, a Brandeis University sociologist who has researched Jewish identity in small American towns, where about 1 million Jews reside. “There are not many Jewish educators in the small communities. They are satisfied with whoever is the most learned Jew in the community; they can direct the Hebrew school but not know the pedagogy.
Synagogues in college towns, such as Upper Valley Jewish Community in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Beth Israel in Waterville, Maine, can tap into the expertise of students and staff. The Colby Center for Jewish Life has created several educational leadership programs: Jewish leadership students teach Hebrew School and teach b’nai mitzvah in Waterville and Augusta; Rabbinical Student Fellows teach children and adults in Bath, Augusta and Waterville five times a year; and an informal education program—the Maine Jewish Youth Connection—brings Jewish teenagers from Maine together to learn and socialize five weekends a year (plus an end-of-year trip).
Often, however, the teachers are faithful volunteers with a rudimentary religious school education. In one case, a Catholic mother learned Judaism in order to teach her child’s Hebrew school.
Marilyn Weinberg recalls the hour-long weekly commute taking her son from Bath, Maine, to Auburn more than 30 years ago; the following year she helped establish a Hebrew school at Congregation Beth Israel in Bath where she still volunteers. Today, 21 students from Hebrew schools in Bath, Brunswick, Freeport and Yarmouth meet weekly with volunteer teachers. “There is not a large presence of Jewish children in public schools, so the Hebrew school is where they meet other Jewish children,” said Rabbi Lisa Vinakoor, the spiritual leader at time. partiel.
Congregation Beth El in St. Johnsbury – where the late Julius Lester was the lay spiritual leader – is located 48 miles south of the Canadian border and is the only synagogue in the kingdom of northeastern Vermont. This small congregation (about 30 units of members) has approached Jewish education in a creative way: its two current religious school children (each in different classes) study via Zoom with Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, spiritual leader of the Hebrew congregation of Bethlehem in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Board member Jill Minkoff, who holds a master’s degree in Jewish studies, is also a volunteer b’nai mitzvah tutor. “Those of us who are involved do everything. We have to make Judaism a reality,” said Minkoff, who moved here six years ago from New York to live near her daughter’s family.
A post-bar mitzvah student participated in the Teen Interview Project, where Jewish teenagers interview Vermont peers on Zoom before their Shavuot retreat in person. The goal is to connect geographically distant teens so they don’t feel isolated, said its creator, Melanie Grubman, vice president and director of programming for the Living Tree Alliance, a kibbutz-inspired co-living community at Moretown, Vermont, which hosts summer camps, farm retreats and nature programs for Jewish youth and families.
Since 2014, Jewish Vermonters have connected through Vermont Jewish Communities, which promotes a vision of “One Jewish Vermont.” Three statewide summits – the Sunday Mountaintop Gatherings in Killington and Stowe – offered educational and cultural programs for all ages. During the pandemic, 300 people attended a virtual summit with Nefesh Mountain, a band that combines bluegrass and Jewish musical styles.
In January, the Covenant Foundation — a nonprofit that funds Jewish educational innovation — awarded JCVT a $41,000 grant for Shmita Statewide, a statewide initiative to unite the community. Jewish through collaborative Jewish education programs. “JCVT’s vision is that with this grant, more Jews will engage in Jewish life and connect with each other and with the broader Vermont Jewish community through programs that speak to them, whether music, art, regional gatherings, Shabbat across Vermont, and more,” said executive director Rabbi Tobie Weisman.
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life in Colby has promoted statewide collaboration and resource sharing since its founding in 2015. It will hold its eighth annual Maine Conference on Jewish Life June 17-19, 2022 , where Jewish Mainers can exchange ideas and learn with Jewish scholars. Its most recent initiative is the Makom Fellowship Program. Under a $150,000 Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation, he will train, support and mentor emerging Jewish professionals in small Jewish communities across the country, recognizing that each location (makom in Hebrew) is unique. The first cohort will serve five small Jewish communities across America, with details to come at the June conference. “The goal of the Makom Fellowship community is to help attract the right professionals and to empower leaders and their lay counterparts to exercise transformative leadership in these communities,” said Rabbi David Freidenreich, Associate Director of the center and professor of Jewish studies at Colby.
“Small Jewish communities are innovative because they have to be,” said Boxer, sociologist Brandeis. “We could benefit from it if we were more careful.”