Laughter arose from the gathering of 200 Jews who had come together lakeside to welcome Shabbat, when the president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua announced an upcoming Israeli dance class to be held at the Hall of Christ.
“I’m not trying to be funny,” he said. “That’s where it is.”
Those laughing at the announcement were most likely newcomers to the Chautauqua Institution, a 750-acre educational center in southwestern New York State. More seasoned members of the congregation — those who have been coming to the storybook-like summer retreat for decades — would certainly not have been fazed by the seemingly ironic convergence of a Jewish program at a Christian venue.
Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 as an educational, Protestant experiment in vacation learning. It developed over the years to serve as an intellectual playground to about 150,000 people each summer, many of whom come for the entire nine-week season.
Just 160 miles from Pittsburgh, Chautauqua is like a summer camp for discerning adults and families; it has a small-town neighborhood feel that reminds visitors of a sophisticated version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, complete with rocking chairs on the front porches of the cottages lining the narrow streets.
People come from all over the country to enjoy a vast array of political and cultural speakers, entertainment and classes on everything from 3-D printing to Shakespeare.
Despite its Christian foundation, 20 to 25 percent of summer visitors to the Institution are Jewish, a phenomenon that has evolved over the years.
While there were always some Jews at the Institution, according to its archivist Jonathan Schmitz, their presence has progressed from the early days of individual Jews trying to blend in with the Protestant demographic while maintaining their own culture, to a visible, proud and congenial Jewish community.
Through the years, the Jewish presence at the Institution has moved from one of assimilation to accommodation to active participation, Schmitz said.
Marilyn Neuman of Pittsburgh has been coming to Chautauqua with her husband, Casey, for 20 years. After renting accommodations for several seasons, they purchased a condo in a 130-year-old building that had been renovated, a block from the 6,000-seat amphitheater, which serves as the community’s central space for arts, culture and worship.
“But there was a time when some people didn’t want to sell to Jews,” said Neuman.
While there was never a restriction on selling to Jews in the bylaws of the Institution, Schmitz confirmed, there “absolutely were people who would not sell or rent to Jews.”
“After the war, a new anti-Semitism appeared – not just here, but across the nation,” said Schmitz. “It should be remembered that most Chautauquans have lives elsewhere, and it is in the communities they live for nine months of the year that most of their attitudes and opinions are formed. I suspect, for example, that those here wishing to restrict the sale of property to Jews were from places where this was already being practiced.”
But the prevailing culture was not tolerant of that kind of exclusion, he added, “although there was a concern that the prevailing Christian culture might be compromised.”
That concern disappeared in the late 1970s, reflecting the changing mores in American society as a whole, according to Schmitz.
Pittsburgher Carole Wolsh and her husband, Harvey, have been coming to Chautauqua for 40 years. She is a past president of the Hebrew Congregation but remembers a time when she did not feel comfortable coming to the Institution.
“Chautauqua was extremely WASPy when we first started coming here,” Wolsh recalled. “I couldn’t stand it. I’m from Squirrel Hill, and all of my friends are Jewish. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Until I got mixed up with the Hebrew Congregation, I never felt good here.”
During my weekend stay at the Institution, I met several Jews who said they encountered bigotry decades ago when trying to rent or buy property at Chautauqua; most were adamant in not wanting to be quoted.
But things have clearly changed at the Institution. Every Jew I encountered during my stay — and there were many—told me of being enamored with the community, and feeling welcome there.
The Hebrew Congregation is a case in point. It will be celebrating its 55th anniversary this month, and since its founding in 1960, it has been holding its Saturday morning services in the Methodist Hurlbut Church. Services are led by various Conservative and Reform rabbis, as well as cantorial soloists, and the church covers the large cross in its chapel prior to each Shabbat. The Hebrew Congregation hosts its weekly Shabbat lunch in the community room of the church.
“The Hebrew Congregation was tolerated in the early years,” said Arthur Salz of Queens, N.Y. who serves as co-president of the congregation. But the Chautauquan climate toward Jews has shifted, he said, from “not just acceptance, but embracing.”
Rabbi Samuel Stahl, of San Antonio, who sometimes leads the Hebrew Congregation, has been spending his summers at Chautauqua since 1998. During the summer of 2003, he was appointed the theologian-in-residence at the Institution.
“It was revolutionary that a rabbi was appointed,” he noted. “But it reflects the whole shift in emphasis from a Christian emphasis to a broader interfaith focus.”
The Chautauquan Jewish presence was solidified in 2009 with the dedication of the Everett Jewish Life Center, the first non-Christian denominational house on the grounds. The Everett Center — funded by philanthropist Edith Everett and her family in memory of her husband, Henry — is one of the nicer buildings at the Institution and hosts a Jewish film series, brown bag lunches with speakers and weekly lectures, events that are well attended by both Jews and non-Jews. The speakers cover a range of topics and political perspectives. Included on this summer’s roster, for example, was Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Week, Rabbi Michal Melchior, chief rabbi of Norway, and Mitchell Bard, author of “The Arab Lobby.”
“There was some concern that the Hebrew Congregation would oppose the building of the Everett house,” said Schmitz. “Some people thought that having a Jewish house would stand out too much and build resentment. But nothing of the sort happened. There was never one criticism or concern.”
The establishment of the Everett Center has been a significant addition to the religious character of the Institution, said Richard Spivak, of Cleveland, who serves as board chair of the Everett Center and has been coming to Chautauqua with his family for 36 summers.
When Spivak first started coming to the Institution, he said, “it was clearly very WASPy. Parts of it are still the same. There is a tremendous presence of religion.”
In fact, there are 11 denominational houses on the grounds, the vast majority being sects of Protestantism.
Still, “unquestionably, more Jews have been coming here,” Spivak said.
The presence of their own denominational house on the grounds seems to have given the Chautauquan Jews a sense of comfort as well as pride.
“The Everett House has made everyone feel much more of a community,” said Pittsburgher Ann Winkelstein, who does not typically participate in religious services. “It has made all the difference in the world. It has brought a lot more Jews, and they are more comfortable.”
While Chautauqua has been a haven for non-Orthodox Jews almost since its founding, it now is able to accommodate the needs of the Orthodox as well.
Chabad first came to the Institution in the late 1980s and was recognized as a denomination there 10 years ago. Its presence was enhanced with the building of its own house on the Institution grounds in 2013.
In addition to a Friday afternoon communitywide challah bake, Chabad Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin and his wife, Esther, hold daily classes and host weekly Shabbat dinners and lunches at the Chabad house. They also hold Shabbat morning services at the Everett Center and run kosher barbecues by the lake that can draw up to 500 people.
Daniel Shuman, from Buffalo, is an Orthodox rabbi who has been coming to Chautauqua with his family for 20 years. “We go to a lot of the concerts in the Amphitheater, and my kids take some of the classes,” Shuman said. “They also enjoy biking around the grounds. It’s safe here. And it’s easy and a pleasure to spend Shabbos here.”
“I feel like I am part of the community,” he added. “The Vilenkins have done a wonderful job of becoming part of the Chautauquan culture.”
Chabad has integrated with the larger Jewish community, occasionally sponsoring joint programming with the Hebrew Congregation, such as a klezmer concert held earlier this summer.
Esther Vilenkin praised the addition of the Everett Center as bringing “an enhanced sense of Jewish pride” to the Institution.
Barbara Goldberg Goldman, of Washington, D.C., is a relative newcomer to Chautauqua, having made her first trek there just three years ago.
“It took me 10 minutes to realize I finally found a community I adore,” said Goldman. “It really is an experience for your mind, your body and your spiritual self. It is incomparable to anywhere else I’ve ever been.”
While Goldman enjoys the lectures and the arts at the Institution, she also has found inspiration among the Jewish community there.
“Some of my most spiritual Shabbat services have been at Chautauqua at the Hebrew Congregation’s service on the side of the lake, near the bell tower,” she said. “The prayer, the singing, the discussion creates a certain bonding with all these people who you really don’t know. It’s a magnificent experience.”
The Institution is committed to fostering interfaith relationships, said Sam Kaye, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who was at the Institution this summer as a participant in its Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. Kaye spent the summer working with a Christian and two Muslims, organizing interfaith programs as an alternative to Chautauqua’s other evening events.
“Chautauqua Institution is a very Christian place, still,” Kaye noted. “It is a faith community, and people here are devout, for the most part. But they are warm and open.”
Kaye, who wore his yarmulke for his entire stay, said that he felt “completely comfortable” while at the Institution and that several of the Christian denominational houses invited him to speak during the summer.
The Jewish presence at Chautauqua has become integral to the very core of the Institution, observed Schmitz.
“We now are at a point where if you removed the Jews,” he said, “it would damage the whole community.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.