Isn’t it great when synagogues evolve organically?
About 15 years ago, I had a call from the President of a synagogue in Juneau, Alaska. The membership was 50 families. They had a rabbi on the High Holy Days who was a professor at the University of Washington. For many years, they had been meeting in people’s homes and rented space in a hotel for the High Holy Days. Now they were renting space from the Northern Lights United Church (great name, don’t you think?).
The reason for the call was that the leadership now wanted to have a building they could call their own and didn’t have a clue as to how to go about it.
So I traveled to Juneau. I flew 3000 miles to Seattle and consulted with the leadership of a small synagogue in Federal Way over lunch. And then got back on a plane and flew another 1700 miles to Juneau.
Who were the Jews of Juneau? The story of the Juneau Jewish community was a familiar one to me. Jews had a presence there since the early part of the 20th Century. When there was a need for goods in communities throughout the U.S., the “peddlers” who came through selling dry goods were oftentimes Jews. This was also true for Juneau. As the Juneau community grew, the Jewish community grew a bit more as well.
But at the turn of the 21st Century, most of the people who belonged to the congregation came to Alaska for different reasons. In the 1970s and 1980s, people were looking for an escape in Alaska. A non-traditional experience after college than what most of us were thinking about. As people married and had children, their focus had changed and they were looking for a Jewish community.
Fast forward to 2016. Congregation Sukkat Shalom now owns its building. They have a student rabbi who comes for the High Holy Days and once a month throughout the year. Like everywhere else, many of the estimated 300 Jews in Juneau are choosing not to affiliate. But how far this synagogue has come is still something to marvel at.
I was reminded of my Juneau visit when I recently read an article about the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe in Stowe, Vermont. I learned that Vermont is the least religious state on the United States, despite all of the churches I have passed by when travelling through. The Stowe synagogue evolved from informal suppers in people’s homes to building its own building a few years ago.
I haven’t met the people of Stowe. I will bet there are a lot of people there who enjoy skiing and the outdoors. And who came there to have a different experience from that which they had growing up.
This certainly goes against the grain of today’s conventional thinking: that people don’t have a desire to affiliate. The people of Stowe, much like the people I met in Juneau, are looking for community. Despite rejection of Jewish institutional life throughout North America, many people have a spiritual hunger and are looking for meaningful ways to express it.
The people in the sacred communities in Stowe, Juneau and many other similar communities (Great Barrington, MA, Park City, UT, and St. Thomas, VI are ones that come to mind) seem to be on to something, each with their own unique special sauce.