“No one comes to Vermont to be Jewish.”
Susan Leff, executive director of Jewish Communities of Vermont (JCVT), isn’t trying to be glib. She’s acknowledging a reality about her adopted state: When most people think of populous, thriving, prototypically Jewish communities, they generally think of big cities.
Vermont? Not so much.
Recently, though, Jewish Vermont has had a moment in the spotlight. This is probably two-thirds attributable to Bernie Sanders and one-third because of Susan Leff, who was interviewed for a JTA article about Sanders’ Judaism.
The JTA article was published in the Times of Israel, and then picked up by the Washington Post.
Moment magazine’s editor saw the Post piece, and decided the magazine should publish a Jewish Vermont story of its own.
That article was seen by a Boston-based reporter who decided to attend JCVT’s Jewish community summit in Stowe — which is how Stowe’s Jewish community ended up being featured in the Boston Globe.
While the flurry of attention may be new, the population is not. Jews have lived in Vermont since 1840 or so. Most were Lithuanian peddlers who discovered Burlington when they were traveling between New York and Montreal. The oldest synagogue in the state — in Burlington, which has a large Jewish population — was built in 1880. A second wave of Jewish immigration came during the 1960s.
“With the hippies,” Leff said, “came the Jews” — including ice cream makers Ben & Jerry and erstwhile candidate Sanders.
Today, official estimates of the state’s Jewish population hover around 5,000. But Leff said that’s way off.
“I have 8,000 on my mailing list, so we know that 5,000 is not the correct number,” she said, noting that there are about 2,400 families who belong to Vermont synagogues. “You multiply 2,400 by three, which is a conservative estimate of how many there are, and you get way more than 5,000.”
Given that most Jewish families in Vermont are not affiliated with synagogues, she said, her guess would be between 18,000 on the low end and 25,000 on the high. If she’s correct, that would be a significant percentage of Vermont’s overall population of around 625,000. It would mean Jews make up a larger percentage of Vermont’s population than they do of, for example, Pennsylvania’s.
The challenge for Leff, who’s going into her fourth year of promoting and organizing with JCVT, is convincing Vermonters that they’re a part of something unified.
“I had this idea that Jewish Vermont wasn’t Rutland and St. Johnsbury and Brattleboro and Bennington and Burlington and Stowe and Montpelier,” she said, ticking off the names of towns with relatively sizable Jewish populations. “I had the idea that Jewish Vermont was [instead] one Jewish community.”
Vermont has never had a Jewish federation, and that’s not what JCVT is about, she said.
“We’re putting together a big tent organization … and we’re saying that this is a place where Jews need to work together because there aren’t so many of us.”
It’s a cool, clear, sunny day, and I’m driving with my windows down on an unpaved road toward Danby, Vt.
Sara Esther Crispe — who, with her husband, Asher, runs the Jewish educational nonprofit Interinclusion — did say something in her email about the remoteness of their location, but I didn’t take it seriously. I’m a lifelong city woman, and it’s hard for me to imagine, sometimes, that parts of the country are still wild and untouched in 2016. But she wasn’t kidding.
This rutted, gravel road is lined on both sides by fragrant trees — and nothing else. No houses. No cars. No signs of life at all. In fact, I haven’t seen another human for miles, and the isolation and seeming endlessness of this road is starting to worry me. I’ve lost my cell phone signal. Anything could happen.
Asher Crispe is a ninth-generation Vermonter. The family now lives in Danby in the historic Otis House, built circa 1795, and brings Jewish people from all over the state — all over the country, even — to their peaceful rural haven for retreats and classes.
When I finally arrive, 12-year-old Ayden is standing in the garden, eating a cherry tomato she’s just picked off the vine. An Australian shepherd dog comes running over to greet me, along with Sara Esther; Asher; the couple’s 13-year-old son, Netanel; and daughter Nava, 17. Fifteen-year-old Nessia isn’t here right now — she’s at the farm down the road milking cows. That’s where the dog is from, too, but he’s become accustomed to regularly visiting the Crispes.
It’s no surprise — the family is welcoming, charming and friendly; their historic home exudes a lived-in warmth and comfort.
In the kitchen, Asher Crispe shows me an old book with a history of Danby that includes some quirky details about this house, including the text of a letter from Abraham Lincoln thanking one of its owners for sending him cheese made in the room we stand in now.
The Crispes are not the first Jewish people to live in this house (there were Jewish tenants at some point in the ’50s or ’60s, Asher Crispe thinks), and Danby has had Jewish residents for generations. The Danby general store, he said, was owned by a Jewish family for decades, starting in 1903. The store’s owner, Abe Rosen, is buried in Danby alongside his wife; his granddaughter recently came to the local historic society to talk about her grandfather and her Jewish family, including her rabbi great-grandfather.
“After these two Jewish storeowners had their store, they sold it to Pearl Buck, who won the Nobel Prize for literature, who lived here for quite some time and passed away in 1973, and then when she passed away, the building was bought by another Jewish woman who owned it until 2005,” Asher Crispe said. “So for the better part of the last 100 years, the local village store was owned by various Jewish families.”
Now it’s the Crispes who are the most prominent Jewish family in Danby; everyone I spoke to about Jewish Vermont knew who they were and what they’re doing.
After Susan Leff said, “No one comes to Vermont to be Jewish,” she added, “except maybe the Crispes.” What Leff means is that the Crispes have chosen Vermont as the ideal place to grow their nonprofit — a venture that’s decidedly Jewish.
“Interinclusion’s subtitle is ‘it’s all connected, we’re all connected,’” Asher Crispe explained. “We do richly interdisciplinary type of learning, with the premise that there is just one world. So it’s infused with Torah and Jewish spirituality but we look to expose a larger mosaic of how all of the arts and sciences can be related to Jewish thought and mysticism.”
In this pursuit, the Crispes write articles and speak across the country. But the experiential component of Interinclusion is retreats, and Vermont seemed to the Crispes to be ideal for creating this living and learning center at Otis House.
As I sit with the family on the house’s long porch, I can hear the leaves rustle in the trees. It’s so quiet here, so peaceful, I’m certain my blood pressure has dropped. Sara Esther Crispe tells me retreat guests find themselves unwinding quickly. “It’s such a reprieve,” she said of the surroundings. “It’s a naturally therapeutic environment.”
The retreats are often catered to specific groups — singles, couples, teenagers — and include activities like music performance and participation; outdoor painting; writing workshops; and meditative hiking.
“Our retreats involve a person’s entire being,” Asher Crispe said. “We really try to integrate many different things into the retreat and celebrate that small is beautiful.”
The Crispes offer classes here at the house for locals interested in the couple’s radically expansive view of Jewish education.
“Everything we do is sort of pushing the envelope in terms of what the future of Jewish education might look like in this very integral atmosphere,” Asher Crispe said. “So our last monthly class that we had was actually on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system and bioinformatics” — heady subject matter that he ties in to Jewish thought. “We’ve had things on film theory, gender theory, quantum mechanics, economics — there’s no boundaries.”
This sense of limitlessness — of porous boundaries and freedom from restrictions — seems to inform the lives of many Jewish people I meet in Vermont and many of its congregations. It’s a sort of flexibility that leads to a broad range of Jewish practice and engagement.
“If you’re going to be Jewish [in Vermont], you need to work at it a little bit,” said Susan Leff, but “you also get to do it your own way. The community is extremely entrepreneurial. People will say, ‘We should have a Jewish theater’ — so they’ll start a Jewish theater. They’ll say, ‘We should start an intentional community’— and Living Tree Alliance pops up.”
Leff said Stowe is a perfect example.
“There was no congregation in Stowe. Jews weren’t welcome in Stowe when it was a ski town in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. All the hotels had little signs that said, ‘Restricted.’ So the new congregation there that organized themselves, got the building 11 years ago and hired a full-time rabbi for the first time two years ago. That was a group of people getting together and saying, ‘We should have a synagogue.’”
That’s pretty much the same thing that happened in Woodstock, Vt. Congregation Shir Shalom now has 150 active families and 50 children in its Hebrew school.
It came about as a byproduct of a handful of residents getting together and saying, “Hey, let’s create something here.” The result — as with Stowe, as with Interinclusion, as with so many Jewish Vermont projects — is a dynamic, inclusive community that emphasizes open doors.
Cheltenham, Pa., native Shari Borzikowski, the immediate past president of Woodstock’s Shir Shalom, sat in the synagogue’s timber-frame sanctuary and said, “We’re open to everybody in that we don’t charge dues, and we’re open to everybody in that we’re interfaith — we don’t tell anybody that they’re not Jewish enough to belong.”
Borzikowski and Leff pointed out that plenty of Jewish people who move to Vermont have no idea that Jewish community is something they’re searching for.
“They leave big cities because they’re disenchanted with whatever’s going on in their full lives, let alone their religious lives, and they’re not so sure that they want to come here and have a religious life,” Borzikowski said.
But something happens when they get here. Maybe they miss that easy walk to the deli around the corner for whitefish — that sort of Jewish connection by cultural osmosis. Maybe they feel their difference more acutely. Whatever it is, once they’re here, they seem grateful for the opportunity to connect.
“When we make ourselves available to them, and other communities around the state do the same, and Jewish Communities of Vermont gets the word out about different things, you get to feel you’re not so isolated or alone,” said Borzikowski, who moved to Vermont from Manhattan. “You find a community like this and it becomes a spiritual home for you, which is I think unexpected for a lot of people.”
Many of the congregations are not affiliated with a particular denomination because, with 40 or 50 miles between synagogues, they aim to serve as many people as possible. Interdenominational interaction seems more accepted here.
The Crispes, who are Chabad Lubavitch, bring Jews from different backgrounds to their events. Leff pointed out that if they all lived in a big city, it’s likely she wouldn’t even know the Crispes. But here in Vermont, they work together for a larger purpose.
Jews in Vermont tend to get enthused about meeting each other. Netanel, who wears a kippah and tzitzit, gets the most attention from other Jews, like the woman who ran up to him at school and said, “I’m Jewish, too!” and people who stop him at the farmer’s market.
“It’s actually very funny because people kind of flock to you to let you know,” Sara Esther Crispe said. “There’s a real [solidarity]. They’ll say, ‘Shalom! Do they have kosher food here?’ They’ll just throw out whatever they know. There’s a genuine excitement.”
Nava, one of the few Jewish students in her school, talked about an octogenarian substitute teacher who, after asking about her name, was delighted to learn of her background.
“He said, ‘I’m Chaim! I’m a yeshiva guy!’” Nava recalls. “He was from Brooklyn and he’s lived here for the past 50 years. It’s really cool because we get to meet other people and they get to meet us.”
Non-Jews get excited about meeting the Crispes, too. “Vermont in general is very live and let live and culturally diverse,” Sara Esther Crispe said. “People are very interested.”
“They’re open-minded, ” Nava chimed in.
“Yeah, I was going to say, they’re open-minded,” Sara Esther Crispe said. “We get a lot of questions [from non-Jewish people]. They’re curious. They want to learn.”
For Chanukah, Nava held a party at her school and took fellow students through some Jewish paces, from the Maccabees to Matisyahu.
“Kids had heard about it on TV but they’d never seen it firsthand,” Nava said. “It was really cool. They thought it was awesome, and I thought it was awesome to be able to share that experience with them and for them to learn about it.”
It didn’t hurt that Nava brought in doughnuts as sufganiyot.
Liz Spikol is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.