Over the last several years, it’s been the custom at CBI for the Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon to be given by three congregants speaking on a shared theme. This year, in anticipation of my Rosh Hashanah Morning 1 sermon on Creating Community, I asked Bob Bashevkin, Robin Brickman, and Lisa Howard to speak about finding home at CBI. Here is what they said. — Rabbi Rachel
My assignment tonight is to give you some of the history of this congregation as I have lived it, and to do that in a limited amount of time.
One cannot fit very much into a limited amount of time, and I will do my best to stay as close to that limit as I can manage. So please be aware that between these lines there is a lot more history that I have not included –some of it humorous, and some of it serious.
When I was born, the North Adams synagogue was the center of Jewish life in the northern half of Berkshire County.
The Jewish population of North Adams was quite large, and many of the retail stores in downtown North Adams were owned by members of our congregation. In fact, every fall, when the High Holidays were coming, the Jewish merchants in North Adams would join together and pay for a full page ad in the local newspaper. The ad listed all their stores. And it announced the dates of the High Holidays, when their stores would all be closed.
Here’s another indication of the size and make-up of the community in those days: When I was 12 years old and studying for my bar mitzvah, I was one of about a dozen students in my Hebrew School class. All of us were preparing for Bar Mitzvah.
Our education left much to be desired. All that year we practiced leading the service and we practiced our Torah portions. So not only did we each learn our own portion, but we each suffered through listening to everyone else’s Torah portions, too !
We were all boys, of course – — the bat mitzvah ceremony for girls hadn’t been invented yet. Or at least it hadn’t made its way to North Adams yet! However, when I was in junior high school, we had a Young Judaea club with about 25 members – both boys and girls.
We also had a basketball team of high school boys who played in the Church League at the YMCA. And we did very well in the rankings. Years later, when I was in my late twenties, the congregation still had a team in that league. And, as some of you know, I was Eugene Wein’s assistant coach for the team.
However, by the time I was a father, things had really changed . Our youngest son, Joel, was one of only two Jewish children in the entire North Adams high school.
The history of the local Jewish community can also be traced through the series of synagogue buildings it occupied, all of them in North Adams.
This is the 4th building that I have been in as a member of CBI. But before that, there was the original synagogue. It was located in a wood-frame tenement building on Francis Street, high on the hill, up above where the Heritage State Park is now located. I understand that a mural was painted on the upper wall of the sanctuary. It may still be in the attic of that building.
But the first synagogue building that I knew was a converted vaudeville theater. It was located on Center Street, near where the Big Y supermarket is today.
It was a large brick building, with 3 floors. The first floor front contained the lobby, plus a retail space, whose occupant paid rent to the congregation, and also a chapel that was used for funerals. In the rear of that first floor there was a mid-sized sanctuary for daily services. Also in that part of the building was the Pine Room, named for its classy new wood paneling. It was used for social events – and there were lots of them — because, as I said, the synagogue was the focus of Jewish life in the northern half of Berkshire County.
The large sanctuary, which had been the actual theater, was used on Shabbat, holidays, and for special occasions. It was on the second floor, with a climb of about 25 steps to get to it. Then the women had to climb another 10 or 12 steps to get to the balcony that was customary in an orthodox shul. Above that, on the third floor, there were several meeting rooms. They were used by the Jewish community’s many clubs and organizations.
By the 1950s, that building was old and outdated. When the state took it by eminent domain for the Route 2 bypass and the shopping center, it was a blessing.
With the money we received from the state, plus some fundraising, we were able to buy property on Church Street. We planned to demolish the house that was on it, and construct for the first time a building that was intended for use as a synagogue.
However, the new building would not be ready for at least a year. So arrangements were made with the other North Adams shul for the two congregations to share the other shul’s small building on Ashland Street. It was located where the high rise apartments for elders are located now. And yes, North Adams did have 2 shuls.
After the joint use of the other congregation’s building was arranged, the two organizations merged. I guess that by then, folks had forgotten whatever dispute it was that had led to the split into two shuls in the first place !
The new building, which opened in 1961, had a 408-seat sanctuary. And it was completely full on the high holidays. The building was split level. And each of its two sections had 2 floors. So, this one also had lots of stairs — and no elevator. As you can guess, the building committee members were all younger people! But many of the people who came for the daily minyan were older. So, before long, a small sanctuary was created on the ground floor, with easy access from the parking lot.
Then the congregation underwent a major demographic change. Young people had begun to go away to college in large numbers. And most did not return here afterwards. Over time, that fact greatly reduced the size of the Jewish community, and changed the age composition of its families.
Then, Sprague Electric Company, the city’s major employer, pulled out of North Adams. Several active members of the synagogue had worked there, and left the area. But it was the ripple effect of Sprague’s closing that was felt the most keenly. It led to a significant drop in the entire local population, and in the Jewish population as well.
As the congregation dwindled further in size, the synagogue building became too big for us. It was also costly to maintain, becoming a financial drain.
Fortunately for us, the building was adjacent to North Adams State College, now MCLA. Three successive presidents of the college wanted to acquire our building for expansion of the campus. The first two of them could not sell the authorities in Boston on funding the acquisition. But the third one, Tom Aceto, was determined to make it happen. He never let up on the state. And after more than a year of negotiation, he got approval. Then we arrived at a price that was acceptable to the congregation, and the deal was made.
As part of the sale agreement, we were allowed to stay on for a full year. During that time, the college would maintain the building and cover all its expenses, and we would seek a new location.
But the search for a new location took much longer than we had expected. The year went by and we were not yet able to leave. So until this building on Lois Street was completed, we were allowed to stay on for more than another year. During that time, we used two rooms in the Church Street building, plus an office. And most of our Torah scrolls were cared for in the homes of members of the congregation. For High Holiday services, we rented space in the hotel on Main Street.
I can’t say enough about how gracious and understanding the college administration was during that entire time.
Just as — over the years — we had changed buildings, we also had changed religious affiliations.
When I was born, the congregation was Orthodox. On the 1961 move into the Church Street building, the rabbis were still Orthodox and our affiliation remained with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. But in that new building, seating in the main sanctuary was a compromise: there was a men’s section in the front, and a women’s section in the back. Most of the congregation sat in the middle, as family groups. There was no women’s balcony, and there was no mechitzah dividing women from men.
As the only synagogue in town, we all had to figure out how to compromise and get along. And we kept managing to do that.
After some years, the changing attitudes within the congregation led first to a vote to move our affiliation to the Conservative movement, later to admit women as full and equal voting members, and finally to give women the right to be called to the Torah during services.
Clearly this was a congregation in transition.
Some years later, we voted to end our affiliation with the Conservative movement. We spent the next 3 years studying the various movements within Judaism in America, and considering our own philosophy. Our purpose was to decide whether we wished to affiliate, and — if so — where. Rabbi Pam Wax came here for a 3-year term as our part-time interim rabbi, charged with leading us through that process. When her term was up, she made the decision to leave the Berkshires and move to New York City. And, in the end, we decided to join the Reform movement, which is still our affiliation.
So I have seen a great many changes in this congregation over the course of many years. But through all the changes, the congregation has remained a close-knit community of people who wish to pray together, study together, socialize together, and to celebrate together our heritage and our life cycle events.
And it is a congregation in which I am pleased to still be a member.
Recently, I read an insightful essay by Mark Epstein based on his book “The Trauma of Everyday Life.” His theory is that everyone has traumas in his or her life, and that our personalities are shaped by those experiences. Here is a partial quote: “While we are accustomed to thinking of trauma as the inevitable result of a major cataclysm, daily life is filled with endless little traumas. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die. Friends get sick and even die. The willingness to face traumas – be they large, small, primitive or fresh – is the key to healing from them. They may never disappear in the way we think they should, but maybe they don’t need to. Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.”
My formative trauma was the sudden death of my father in 1968, on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. We lived in Northern VA, and the rioting in Washington, DC included the area around the Funeral home. The riots and looting cast a national sense of loss over our family’s personal loss. I was 13, and with that event I tumbled into experiences that shaped my future. During the turmoil of the 1960’s, the experimentations of the 70’s, I was fortunate to have a strong and sensible mother, and a family that truly cared about one another. A turning point of my story is that Jeff and I met when we both went on a school sponsored spelunking trip in 1969. My future mother in-law, Sally Strait, drove the car Jeff and I were in. That morning, as I headed off to the caving trip, my mother Lil advised me to: “let the fat ones go first.”
When Jeff and I decided to get married I knew that I wanted a Jewish wedding. Historically, intermarriage became much more common during that decade. Jeff, my mother and three older siblings, and Jeff’s parents made sure that we could do that. My mother had to join a reform synagogue in order to have that rabbi marry us, and he was conflicted. Even though I knew that marrying a non-Jew would have tested my father; one could say that he died before he experienced the challenges of the 1970’s, and before seeing me become a somewhat rebellious teenager. In 1976, I knew a Jewish wedding was important to me, as a way to honor him, and continue the traditions and familial connections I knew I needed, even though I didn’t have a very strong religious background or practice.
Rabbi Barenblat asked me to speak tonight about the reason we switched from membership in Anshe Amunim, in Pittsfield, to Congregation Beth Israel. I quickly realized that I had to go back to 1968, and the remarkable way that Jeff and I found each other at the ages of 14 and 15. Jeff saved me from the pitfalls of being a teenager in the 1970’s and from my particular trauma.
Religion was not a part of Jeff’s upbringing, and we’ve been able to raise our sons as Jews, with his consistent support. Our “inter-marriage” has been one where I am the boss when it comes to religion. We are an example of matrilineal descent. However, I knew that I couldn’t stay in a conservative congregation like the one of my childhood. As a family in Berkshire County with sons, the best choice for a synagogue membership for our family, and a religious school for Jared & Caleb, was the reform congregation Anshe Amunim, in Pittsfield. Both boys had their Bar Mitzvahs there, and we made some good friends. Over the years many joined other congregations in Great Barrington and Bennington, or moved away and the travel time out-weighed the connection we once had. Meanwhile, our immediate family was spread across the country.
We left Anshe Amunim, and a few years later, preceding death of my mother, we joined Congregation Beth Israel. I knew that we needed to belong to a reform synagogue and a twenty-minute meeting with Rabbi Goldwasser convinced me that CBI could become my Jewish home. Rabbi Barenblat’s tenure has confirmed it.
The recent deaths of Jeff’s parents, his father last November, and his mother last month, has made me realize my own part in our “inter-marriage,” where I am not the boss. Jeff’s father, Ed Strait, was cremated, and I immediately offered to create his burial urn. It was a labor of love, and I knew I was the one to do it. Our family gathered two times in Ed’s honor. We were all moved by the public praise provided by Jeff, the city of Falls Church, Virginia, and the military ceremony honoring my father in-law at Arlington National Cemetery, earlier this year.
In contrast, my mother in-law chose to live alone in Sedona, Arizona for the past 28 years. As her health deteriorated last month, we made a trip there just in time to be with her. Sally was fiercely independent and wanted to stay in her home to the end. We were able to talk with her, tell her about her grandsons and their adult lives, show her pictures, and be with her when she died.
Sally had told me on several occasions that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered in a beautiful natural place. She and I debated this issue, with my assertion that it was against my traditions. But, first with Ed’s death, and then with Sally’s, I realized that their wishes should be respected. Ed didn’t request inurnment at Arlington Cemetery, but he was proud of his WWII experience and it was the right and honorable way to say goodbye.
Two days after Sally’s death, Jeff and I hiked to a beautiful place in Arizona, and on a high mesa, Jeff honored her wishes. I spoke and sang three prayers from the CBI Siddur. I hope that she would have been pleased. Before she died, Sally told me that because of my family she had been able to participate in so many wonderful family events. She and my mother had become very close during the 1980’s and 90’s, taking numerous trips together and with us. Sally came to family bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings, and really was an admired member of my extended family. There are photos and thank-you notes from all those trips in her possessions.
So, the home I have at CBI helps me to pull together all the threads of Jeff and my family histories. As we look forward to the marriage of our oldest son next year, I hope I can be as accepting and nurturing as our families have been to Jeff and myself. I hope that the tests of parenting can be negotiated with unconditional love and acceptance. And I hope that my adult children will have a place in their lives for the traditions and heritage of Judaism: not through trauma, but by choice as they plan the happy and joyful events in their future.
Let me start by saying that I feel truly privileged to have this opportunity to talk with you this evening about finding a home at CBI and about how my personal journey fits into the fabric of our larger community. I’m going to begin with some of my personal biography and then talk about how that experience has led me to CBI.
I grew up in Central New Jersey as an only child, raised by my parents , neither of whom is Jewish. I was baptized and we occasionally attended a Presbyterian church in our community. My parents divorced when I was 7. When I was 12, they each remarried and my mother married a Jewish widower with 4 children. In that family, we celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays. We attended synagogue on the high holidays and church on Christmas Eve. My brother and sisters celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs and I had a confirmation.
Growing up in a religiously “mixed” family had a tremendously positive impact on me and shaped my appreciation for different cultures and religious traditions. I came to enjoy the Jewish holidays, particularly Passover, more and more. I learned certain Hebrew prayers and I also began to develop an appreciation for Jewish culture and values. But there was also a down side because the larger Jewish community that my family was a part of was not pluralistic and in fact, was explicitly disapproving of “mixed marriages” as they were referred to at that time, seeing them as a threat to the continuation of the Jewish community and culture. Even as a child, I felt this disapproval quite keenly and I was treated as an outsider. It was a difficult experience, looking back on it, because I felt this mismatch between my experience of Judaism within my family, where I felt increasingly comfortable and identified with Jewish culture and my experience of being a member of a larger Jewish community, which gave me the message that I didn’t actually belong.
I suppose that it makes sense then, that in this way, as in many other ways, I ended up feeling at home with a man who also had an unusual connection to Judaism. My husband, Orion’s mother is Jewish and identifies herself as such but she was raised by communists who didn’t observe any religious traditions. Orion’s father was an atheist from a family with a Christian background and he was deeply suspicious of any organized religion. So, Orion grew up with very little exposure to any religious traditions and never had a clear “religious home” or identity. Orion’s first experience of attending a Seder was at my mother and stepfather’s home. When we decided to get married, I felt that I wanted to have a religiously based ceremony, rather than having a judge and so we began to explore various options and finally settled on a Unitarian Church. Though neither of us had any experience with Unitarianism, it offered acceptance of our version of religious pluralism and the ability to incorporate Jewish traditions without having to face disapproval because we weren’t “officially Jewish” in some way.
As the years went by, our children were born and there was some pressure from my Dad’s side of the family to baptize them. We didn’t have them baptized and didn’t identify with any particular religious tradition for several years. It was a topic that would come up from time to time because I increasingly felt that I wanted to give them a religious identity and a “spiritual home” of some form but I didn’t feel happy or comfortable with embracing a Christian tradition that would exclude my husband. Also, I had come to feel less and less connected to Christianity. One of my sisters had died tragically in her twenties. The experience of her loss and my thinking about issues of mortality in it’s aftermath, left me feeling that Christian concepts of an afterlife did not hold meaning or comfort for me. The religious traditions that we observed at the time of her death were Jewish traditions and they made sense to me. It seemed to me that religion offers a platform and a structure for thinking about life and death. I felt that I wanted my children to have that kind of foundation as they grew and ultimately faced the loss of a loved one.
I began talking with friends about this question and Orion and I discussed it in great detail. Was it important or necessary to give the children a religious identity? What did it mean in terms of our own values and beliefs? Would the choice of a particular identity distance them from others with different traditions, even within our own family? Was there a religious tradition out there that reflected our belief system and that was liberal, open-minded and inclusive in the ways that we value? And finally, was Judaism an option that could work for our family? And if we chose Judaism, what would it mean to choose to be a minority in our society?
Interestingly enough, the answers to these questions crystallized one day when our son, Noah was in 2nd grade and he came home from school and told me about a conversation he’d had with one of his friends. This particular friend, Jack, had asked Noah why he didn’t go to church. Noah had answered that we just didn’t go to church but that wasn’t good enough for Jack and he then pressed Noah for a different answer. Noah answered that the church was far away and so we didn’t go and then Jack said that since we didn’t go to church, we must be Jewish. Noah was disturbed by this interaction with Jack. He knew that he was being judged and that he was being perceived as lesser because he didn’t go to church. But he didn’t have an answer to give Jack about who he was and about what it meant that he didn’t go to church. Suddenly there it was, an answer to the first question. Was it important or necessary to give the children a religious identity? Suddenly, it seemed, it really was.
Orion was friendly with a rabbi, Norman Koch, in the town where we lived in Northwestern CT and so he called him and we made an appointment to talk with him about our thoughts and questions about this. We went to that meeting with many questions and complications in our minds about all of this and without any clear sense of what we thought the outcome should or would be. Rabbi Koch listened to us tell our stories about our own complicated relationships to Judaism and then he said something which at the time was quite startling. He said to Orion, “You’re Jewish.” And he explained that in Judaism, there is not an ideological hurdle to “getting in”. That there isn’t a standard of needing to have a specific belief system or of having faith in God and that Orion was already included no matter what doubts or ambivalence he might have. In addition, he explained that in Reform Judaism, our children were also “in” by virtue of having a Jewish father, even though their mother was not Jewish. And then he very simply, as though it was no big deal, invited us to join their synagogue and try it out.
So, we did. We began by going to Sun AM Jewish education classes with Noah. The classes were run by parent volunteers and it was expected that parents would help out. Also, I felt that if we were going to be “trying this out” to see if it fit and learning more about Judaism- it made sense for me to be actively involved and so I started learning about Judaism while making collages about blessings and learning about important figures in Jewish history. I was very pleasantly surprised that I felt truly welcomed into the community. My childhood experience of feeling marginalized was not an issue 30 years later. Despite that warm welcome, though, I was still at the beginning of this journey and I continued to feel ambivalent at times about whether it was the right fit for me and for our family.
We were members of the synagogue in CT for two years and then we moved to Williamstown in 2008. When we moved, there was a lot of upheaval and the question of connecting with a new Jewish community was put on the back burner for a couple of years. Probably, in part, because I had felt some ambivalence about the whole process and what it meant for me and my own identity. And partly, because with so many new adjustments, it seemed less important than other ways of connecting. But then, once again, movement was sparked because of one of my children’s friends. This time, it was a positive story.
Rose Gotlieb invited my daughter, Molly, to come with her and her family to a Hanukkah party at CBI. This was a very smart move on Rose’s part because there were no other girls Rose’s and Molly’s age who belonged to the synagogue and Molly had a really fun time at the party. Rose’s mom, Lauren Gotlieb, then suggested that we might want to check out the Sunday AM children’s program Avodah. Molly and I began to attend Avodah regularly and we felt even more welcomed and comfortable than I had felt at our previous synagogue.
Rabbi Jeff was very warm and tremendously flexible about our level of involvement and the first year Molly only participated in Avodah and didn’t attend the Mon afternoon Hebrew lessons. The following year, Molly began Ne’arim in order to prepare for becoming bat mitzvah and because she was a couple of years behind her peers in learning Hebrew, Heather Levy worked with Molly individually on her Hebrew. Rabbi Rachel has also been amazingly warm and inclusive, as clearly evidenced by her invitation for me to speak at this evening’s service.
And so it seems that my family and I have found a home at CBI. I can tell you that when the rabbi contacted me and invited me to speak tonight, I called my stepfather and told him and he laughed and laughed. He likes to say that he never expected me to be the one child to give him Jewish grandchildren! But there you have it.
In some ways, it is a funny surprise that I have found a home here and in other ways, it makes perfect sense. The concept of a home, after all, is a place where you feel comfortable and accepted. It is a haven in the larger world. And it is a place that reflects your values and ideals. A spiritual home, in addition, is a place that provides safety and structure for thinking about spiritual questions. It is a place for learning and questioning the nature of God, and of ourselves, and our relationships to one another. It seems to me that the brilliance of Judaism is that it is all about that process. In providing a spiritual home for me and my family, it has provided an environment and a community for me and my family to think and talk about our values and to share those conversations with others. We feel very lucky to have found this spiritual home. Happy New Year! L’Shana Tovah!