Jews in the Woods
I had only known urban or suburban living until I moved to Vermont. Having grown up in Montreal in the suburban shtetl that is ironically called Cote-Saint-Luc, I moved to the west coast, then New York City, and finally, to Boston for rabbinical school at Hebrew College. Rural living was as foreign to me as a New York bagel (I am a Montrealer after all, and we know our bagels are the best in the world), but almost 10 years later, there’s just no going back to urban life. While pollsters and their analysts may bemoan the crumbling of Jewish life across North America, I can tell you that, in rural Vermont, Jewish living is thriving with great potential for more meaningful engagement. It is a great joy in my life to help discover, build, lead, and grow this burgeoning community.
Those who were born in Vermont or who move here have a certain passion for life. You need to possess that if you are going to endure or, dare I say, even enjoy our cold winters! We call ourselves “Jews in the woods.” Jews in our area have intentionally moved away from the central urban and suburban experience, including its robust Jewish life, in order to be tucked away in the woods, pursuing communion with nature, and a simpler, back-to-the-land lifestyle. In some ways, I see it as a move back in time, especially for Ashkenazi Jews who lived much of recent centuries in Eastern European small communities. At the same time, it’s a forward-looking move, embracing new creative forms of Jewish life, and enabling access for new, often marginalized Jews.
Our congregation is named the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe (JCOGS). The founders of our institution knew that, if we were to serve the needs of all of the Jewish and interfaith families in our area, we would have to embrace the Jews in the greater, broader, more rural, far-flung areas of north-central Vermont, not just those living in or visiting the well-known ski resort of Stowe.
Some 25 years later, our members live in more than 15 Vermont towns, stretching as far as the Canadian and New Hampshire borders and down to the Sugarbush ski resort. It’s not uncommon for some of our members to travel up to an hour for our Friday services and oneg or to bring their children to our Olam Chesed Education Center. Now, that’s commitment to Jewish life! I have performed welcoming ceremonies for new babies at great distances, and funerals in the smallest countryside cemeteries you’ve ever seen.
With the influx of both COVID and climate refugees to Vermont, as well as retirees looking for a more down-to-earth lifestyle, we see even more folks seeking Jewish communal life in the fresh air and wide-open spaces.
That is why our JCOGS community, inspired by a board retreat led by Rabbi Sid Schwarz last summer, is doubling down on this strategic idea: to be a rural Jewish community means to be a hub for the many Jews in the woods. We are striving to serve a large regional area and to grow our commitment to provide robust and varied opportunities for all who want to engage.
To be sure, we are challenged by the dearth of Jewish institutions in rural Vermont, the distances we travel to be together, and the great diversity in the Jewish backgrounds of our community members. But those challenges are our springboard for creative, joyful involvement in Jewish traditions.
This past Hanukkah, for example, our community went on-the-road with “Hanukkah on Ice” in a nearby town’s ice rink, and also a Hanukkah party with a local culinary feast way up in northern Vermont, in addition to our Stowe-based events. And this coming summer, our Stowe Jewish Film Festival has expanded its offerings, with showings and events in theatres in three, very geographically diverse areas of our region. For many of our programs, we are partnering with other local synagogues and organizations like Jewish Communities of Vermont and Living Tree Alliance.
Of course, we pivoted to incorporate Zoom and hybrid offerings in all we do, so people don’t necessarily need to drive the long distances. From adult-education to moving our religious school to Zoom-only in the dead of winter, kids and adults are showing up online. But as one rabbi once said: “Matzah ball soup just doesn’t taste as good over Zoom.” So as not to send our members out for a long drive home with empty bellies, and so that we are building deep relationships with our members and visitors, we offer a Friday night oneg that cannot be beat—a creative, abundant dinner to nourish body and soul.
On a strategic level, we are building relationships with multiple local Jewish groups in our region. About 45 minutes from our building, there is a group of adults in the Mad River Valley that get together periodically, some of whom are also members of our community. I have regularly traveled there as a “roving rural rabbi” to lead Shabbat services or a Hanukkah party with a potluck-style dinner. We co-sponsored some Shabbat services and invited them to High Holy Days for a group aliyah over the years. But now, we are expanding our approach more holistically, with members hosting regular small groups in the area for Shabbat, havdalah, and holiday gatherings, thus deepening their relationship to each other, to community, and to tradition.
For our youth and families, our Olam Chesed Education Center has been grounding its roots and now has branches. In Stowe, our growing cohort of families have come from all over north-central Vermont to learn experientially. In the Mad River Valley area, we are also developing a budding relationship with young interfaith families who are seeking Jewish connections. Following their lead, we now offer support, including JCOGS educators to teach about holidays and Shabbat, accompanied by Jewish food for hungry parents and little ones. In the state capital, Montpelier, we recently partnered with Beth Jacob Synagogue. In a state that has only small synagogues, collaboration makes a whole lot of sense. We work with them to offer administrative and educational support to grow their young family programs. Working with their lay leaders, we see tremendous potential for future growth.
Meanwhile, our Mitzvah program (what we call Bar or Bat Mitzvah) has students literally coming out of the woods to join our program. They come, in part, because we prioritize meeting families where they are at—often interfaith, most often with little Hebrew or Jewish education. Yet, within a year, they are chanting from the Torah, leading many prayers, and giving some of the most stirring Divrei Torah I have ever heard.
In our Tikkun Olam work, for some time, we have been cultivating interfaith connections. Over the years, we have partnered and offered leadership on significant issues from housing and homelessness to racial equity. More recently, with the uptick in poverty in our county since COVID, we are developing an Interfaith Benevolence Fund in partnership with more than a dozen churches to serve the emergent needs of those struggling economically. We are the only synagogue in 25-miles to one direction, and well over 100-miles in other directions! In an area that has seen its share of antisemitism as well as a general lack of knowledge about Jewish life, exposure to our communal Jewish presence and the fostering of deep relations with local communities helps everyone recognize our interconnected community.
With the vast physical distance between our members, it’s been tough meeting the needs of those who are dealing with injury, illness, or a recent loss. Our next goal is to develop chesed caring community pods, where each geographic area can serve the needs of their neighbours.
It’s one of the great gifts of my life to serve the rural needs for Jewish and interfaith life in our area. The passion for life is abundant. Whether through programming, strategic relationships, interfaith social justice, caring community, or celebrating holidays and lifecycles, the potential for Jewish Vermont vitality has never been greater.
Rabbi David Fainsilber is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe. He was ordained through Hebrew College in 2014 and is an alumnus of Cohort 4 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). He can often be found out in the Vermont woods, searching for connection to the Divine and people amidst the wondrous beauty of creation.