Grassroots synagogue offers important lesson

I remember when the idea emerged for what has become the Woodstock, (VT) Area Jewish Congregation (now also known as Shir Shalom). I was on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and we had been among the first to pioneer weekend retreats for study and prayer for liberal adult Jews (under the rubric of the Morris Zimmerman Memorial Institute). One of our regulars, Stuart Matlins (now better known as the publisher/owner of Jewish Lights Publishing), was concerned about the fact that he had moved to Woodstock from New York City and there was no Jewish community. Yet he knew that there were Jews in the community. He was meeting them all the time.

Encouraged by those involved from HUC-JIR at the Zimmerman Institute, he decided to take a gamble and advertise High Holiday services which he was prepared to lead. Thirty people showed up for the first Shabbat potluck dinner that Stuart and Antoinette Matlins arranged. And now, 19 years later, the congregation has a building and its own rabbi. But what is most important is that the congregation (which now boasts 40 children in its religious school) continues not to charge dues to its members and it perceives its mission as one serving the entire Jewish community rather than just its “members.”

While I think that too often we look to large communities to teach small communities, here is an example in which a small community is well ahead of the curve. When the boy celebrating his bar mitzvah a few weekends ago was asked what he though the synagogue and Jewish community would look like in 13 years (part of a series of questions that bar/bat mitzvah candidates are asked to address to the congregation), he replied, “I think that the rest of the county will follow our example and not charge dues to its members.” This bar mitzvah boy—and his congregation—have the right idea. Are we indeed prepared to follow their lead?

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