What image comes to mind when you hear the words “rural New England?” “Bucolic farms,” possibly? “Towering church steeples?” “Quaint Puritan villages?” How about, “one of the most vibrant, diverse, and committed Jewish communities in North America.”
Surprised? Skeptical? So was I until I attended the Eleventh Annual Conference on Rural Judaism this past June at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville. Vermont. With nearly five hundred children, teens, and adults congregating from across New England, the conference provided a special opportunity for this unique Jewish population to create what Rabbi Daniel Siegel of Dartmouth College called a “magical community.”
The magic resulted from the uninhibited nature of the weekend as a whole. Imagine women in Sephardic style kippot and elegant tallitot leading a Jewish Renewal Shabbat service; lesbian partners holding hands at an outdoor Havdalah service; Julius Lester, an African-American Jewish convert, teaching about non-Orthodox forms of religiosity. Alike only in geographic distribution and in their strong commitment to Judaism, these participants demonstrated that it is possible to create a Jewish community without the binding force of proximity to other Jews.
Most striking in the wide range of activities and discussions which targeted this year’s theme of “living with diversity” were the creative workshops dedicated to feminist and women’s issues. Some of the more popular topics included: “Diversity of God Language: Different Ways of Naming and Understanding God” and “Rosh Chodesh: A Women’s Celebration.” These workshops demonstrate how rural New England now provides fertile soil for a feminist Jewish exploration.
The weekend enabled the attendees to build and expand already existing regional networks. Acknowledging that American Jewry is becoming increasingly spread out, Siegel stated that, “the smaller Jewish communities are not anachronisms. . . but rather glimpses into our Jewish future.” The Conference on Rural Judaism serves as an excellent model for other small Jewish communities nationwide who want to connect with Jews in their region.