Thursday, September 13, 2007

Woodstock’s Values, and Abraham’s, Too

By PETER APPLEBOME
Our Towns
The New York Times
September 13, 2007

WOODSTOCK, N.Y.

In his Rosh Hashana sermon today, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, like many rabbis, will try to put the eternal struggle to square human fallibility with human aspiration in a context particularly germane to his own congregation.

So in the prepared text of his sermon he begins by meditating on “messianic visions of modernity,” particularly the idealism and passions of the ’60s that brought so many of his peers to this Catskill town still defined by the concert that wasn’t held here. Along with mulling over the “yetzer hara,” the capacity for evil, and the “yetzer hatov,” the capacity for good and the ancient wisdom of Rabbi Huna of Tzipori, he’ll tell his congregation to keep hope alive.

“I never want to abandon my idealism,” he says, near the beginning of the sermon. “I’m the rabbi of Woodstock, for God’s sake!”

Yes, Mr. Kligler is the rebbe of a distinctive congregation, where the High Holy Days ceremonies are always held outdoors in their beloved tent, and the first Rosh Hashana service begins with the singing of the ’60s anthem “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with the rabbi playing guitar, where there’s always plenty of singing, dancing and hugging along with the davening.

But still, two decades on, there’s a tale of modern Jewish life in the success of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation — Kehillat Lev Shalem (which means “the congregation of the full heart”). Like its members, like many Jews, it has tried to balance tradition and modernity, staying true to its core values and adapting to change, and has managed mostly to do it, even though no one began with a vision of a place that has an annual golf outing at the Rip Van Winkle Country Club.

“Our goal has always been to be truly welcoming, truly tolerant, true to the Woodstock ethos,” said Rabbi Kligler, who came to the congregation in 1988 as a student rabbi and never left. “At the beginning, no one wanted to have memberships, there was no accounting system. Our challenge was to grow without losing our vision and spirit.”

There were plenty of Jews in Woodstock, but no synagogue closer than Kingston until late 1986, when two refugees from Brooklyn, Laurie Schwartz and Nathan Brenowitz, decided to start one. First, they wanted to have a place where their son could learn to be Jewish — and they could learn along with him. Second, as Mr. Brenowitz noted, most of the Jews in town seemed to be Hindus or Buddhists, and they wanted a place with a Jewish identity that evoked the spirituality all their friends were seeking.

They placed an ad in The Woodstock Times announcing their intentions to start a synagogue that attracted 70 responses. First they planned a High Holy Days ceremony in a single room at the Woodstock Children’s Center. Then as word spread, they thought they could do it in two rooms with the prayer leader straddling the doorway between them. In the end, they rented a tent and more than 250 people attended the first service.

They operated for many years out of an abandoned flea market in nearby Saugerties. They contemplated a new building but worried that a traditional capital campaign might not be their thing. “The capital campaign consultants talked about a giving pyramid, with the big donors at the top,” Rabbi Kligler said. “That wasn’t going to work. We’re more like a giving mesa.”

But they pulled it off. This is their second year in the new $3 million, 12,500-square-foot building (which actually is in Woodstock) with the 150 purple chairs in the sanctuary donated by the Catskill Mountain Christian Center in Margaretville. There will be about 1,500 people attending the High Holy Days ceremonies, the membership is now 375 families, and the new building means the rabbi no longer has to operate out of a trailer behind the old flea market.

There have been at least two times of crisis. The first came when the congregation split over the rabbi’s suggestion that it affiliate with the Reconstructionist Movement, where he was trained (they decided to remain unaffiliated), the second the result of bitter political schisms after 9/11 and the second intifada over whether the synagogue was supporting Israel enough or supporting it too much (a few members quit, but life went on).

THE congregation is still distinctive, proud to have sponsored the bat mitzvah of a transsexual member who had her bar mitzvah decades ago. But Rabbi Kligler figures that with Judaism facing a growing chasm between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox on one side and those more comfortable with modernity on the other, its experience isn’t just its own.

And though anyone can attend the High Holy Days services, those who’ve paid their membership dues get to park at the temple, a perk that might have been blasphemous in the old days, but no more.

“We finally have a privilege for members,” the rabbi said. “It makes a big difference. People have joined, so they can park on site.”

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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