Benjamin Wheeler
Community members from across the state of Maine dance after Havdalah at the Center for Small Town Jewish Life’s 2019 Fall Shabbaton at Colby CollegeBenjamin Wheeler
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Magnetic North

Jewish communities in northern New England’s small towns find ways to attract more participants from diverse backgrounds

by
Paula Jacobs
April 28, 2022
Benjamin Wheeler
Community members from across the state of Maine dance after Havdalah at the Center for Small Town Jewish Life's 2019 Fall Shabbaton at Colby CollegeBenjamin Wheeler

Stowe, Vermont, overlooks Mount Mansfield, a popular ski and hiking destination in northern Vermont. This town of 201 residents—where antisemitism was once rampant and hotels barred Jewish guests—is now home to a growing and thriving Jewish community. Some have moved here to connect to nature or participate 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, the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe has become a vibrant center of Jewish life: Today a multigenerational community of approximately 200 membership units—including local farmers, urban transplants, and interfaith families—hails from 15 towns as far north as 50 miles away on the Canadian border. What began as a one-room religious school now offers a variety of programs for 71 children, including 11 b’nai mitzvah scheduled over the next few months.

“What is exciting about it is that people don’t usually move up to Vermont to be Jewish,” said Rabbi David Fainsilber, who became JCOGS’ first full-time spiritual leader in 2014. He has since forged meaningful connections with a Jewish community with diverse backgrounds and political beliefs; he has also reached out to the wider interfaith community, engaging his congregants in volunteer work such as at the local homeless shelter. “We have found a good balance between caring for our Jewish community and the outside community in terms of programs and services.”

“Rabbi David has 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 infuses into the services,” said Marcie Scudder, who relocated here in 2015 from a large Jewish community outside of Boston. Her late mother, Roselle Abramowitz, helped found the Stowe community after retiring from Montreal in the 1980s.

There’s vibrant Jewish life across northern New England today, in small communities across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. “Our communities are alive 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 at Colby and spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Waterville, Maine, with a large proportion of interfaith families (more than 80%) as well as Jews by choice (20%). “We try to bring the full diversity of Jewish life here. If you don’t try to create a home for the diversity of Jewish belief and diversity, then you are narrowing your reach.”

But the community in northern New England also faces many challenges: a diverse and geographically spread-out population, few Jewish professionals, limited financial resources, and the lack of institutions such as JCCs, federations, and day schools. “In Maine, it gets dark early in the winter and it’s difficult for people to get here,” explained Rabbi Erica Asch, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine—the only Reform synagogue in central Maine—which serves 100 households across a 50-plus-mile radius. “Like many other small communities, there are a limited number of people to keep things running.”

In these small communities, as the only Jewish institution for miles around, the synagogue must accommodate people from different backgrounds. “In a small community in Vermont, you need to be broad-minded about who gets to participate,” said Andy Robinson, president of Beth Jacob Synagogue, a Montpelier-based, lay-led, 110-family-unit egalitarian synagogue that serves Washington County in central Vermont. “We have a very inclusive take on how to be Jewish and how to identify as Jewish.” Beth Jacob has long welcomed same-sex couples and interfaith families, including b’nai mitzvah of patrilineal Jewish descent. Depending on who leads services, worship ranges from Reform to modern Orthodox, with prayer books from different denominations. “We pride ourselves on being eclectic and leader-led,” explained Michele Clark, a native New Yorker and active congregant for more than 30 years.

Our communities are alive and thriving even though they look very different from Jewish communities in suburban and urban areas.

Elsewhere, individuals have organized Shabbat and holiday gatherings. The Mad River Valley Jewish Community—an informal association in central Vermont’s Mad River Valley—connects 120 households via an email list coordinated by volunteer Susan Bauchner, a retired Jewish communal professional turned ski instructor who moved here from Philadelphia 19 years ago.

Jewish education is a major challenge, says Matt Boxer, a Brandeis University sociologist who has researched Jewish identity in small-town America, where approximately 1 million Jews reside. “There aren’t a lot of Jewish educators in small communities. They make do with whoever is the most knowledgeable Jew in the community; they may run the Hebrew school but not know pedagogy.”

Synagogues in college towns, such as the Upper Valley Jewish Community in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Beth Israel in Waterville, Maine, can tap into the expertise of students and staff. The Center for Jewish Life at Colby has created several educational leadership programs: Student Jewish Leadership Fellows teach Hebrew school and tutor 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 together Maine Jewish teens for learning and socializing five weekends a year (plus an end-of-year trip).

Often though, teachers are volunteer congregants with a rudimentary religious school education. In one instance, a Catholic mother learned about Judaism in order to teach at her child’s Hebrew school.

Marilyn Weinberg recalls the weekly hourlong trek driving her son from Bath, Maine, to Auburn more than 30 years ago; the following year, she helped establish a Hebrew school at the Beth Israel Congregation in Bath where she still volunteers. Today 21 Hebrew school students from Bath, Brunswick, Freeport, and Yarmouth meet weekly with volunteer teachers. “There isn’t a large presence of Jewish kids in the public schools, so the Hebrew school is where they meet other Jewish kids,” said Rabbi Lisa Vinakoor, the part-time spiritual leader.

Small Jewish communities are innovative because they have to be.

Congregation Beth El in St. Johnsbury—where the late Julius Lester was lay spiritual leader—is located 48 miles south of the Canadian border and is the only synagogue in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. This small congregation (approximately 30-membership units) has addressed Jewish education creatively: Its two current religious school children (each in different grades) study via Zoom with Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, spiritual leader of the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Board member Jill Minkoff—who holds an M.A. in Jewish studies—is also a volunteer b’nai mitzvah tutor. “Those of us who are involved do everything. We need to make Jewish happen,” said Minkoff, who relocated here six years ago from New York City to live near her daughter’s family.

One post-bar mitzvah student has participated in the Teen Interview Project, where Jewish teens interview Vermont peers on Zoom before their in-person Shavuot retreat. The goal is to connect geographically distanced teenagers so they don’t feel isolated, said its creator, Melanie Grubman, vice president and director of programming at the Living Tree Alliance—a kibbutz-inspired co-housing community in Moretown, Vermont, that hosts vacation camps, farm retreats, and nature programs for Jewish youth and families.

Since 2014, Jewish Vermonters have connected through the Jewish Communities of Vermont, which promotes a vision of “One Jewish Vermont.” Three statewide summits—Sunday gatherings on mountaintops in Killington and Stowe—have offered educational and cultural programs for all ages. During the pandemic, 300 people attended a virtual summit featuring Nefesh Mountain, a band that combines bluegrass and Jewish musical styles.

In January, the Covenant Foundation—a nonprofit organization that funds Jewish educational innovation—awarded JCVT a $41,000 grant for Shmita Statewide, a statewide initiative to unite the Jewish community through collaborative Jewish education programs. “JCVT’s vision is that with this grant, more Jews will get involved in Jewish life, and connect with one another and with the wider Jewish community in Vermont through programs that speak to them, whether it be music, art, regional gatherings, Shabbat Across Vermont, and more,” said executive director Rabbi Tobie Weisman.

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby has promoted statewide collaboration and resource sharing since its founding in 2015. It will hold its eighth annual Maine Conference on Jewish Life on June 17-19, 2022, where Jewish Mainers can exchange ideas and learn with Jewish scholars. Its newest initiative is the Makom Fellowship Program. Under a $150,000 Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation, it will train, support, and mentor emerging Jewish professionals in small Jewish communities nationwide—recognizing that each place (makom in Hebrew) is unique. The first cohort will serve five small Jewish communities across America, with details forthcoming at the June conference. “The goal of the Makom Fellowship community is to help attract the right professionals and empower the leadership and their lay counterparts to do transformative leadership in those communities,” said Rabbi David Freidenreich, associate center director and Colby Jewish studies professor.

“Small Jewish communities are innovative because they have to be,” explained Boxer, the Brandeis sociologist. “We could benefit if we paid more attention.”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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