Jews in Vermont, Part II

There’s an old Chasidic story about a granddaughter and grandfather who go to shul together.

The grandfather notices his granddaughter leaving the building each morning to daven outside, in the woods.

One day he asks her, “Why are you leaving? Don’t you know God is the same everywhere?”

His granddaughter answers, “Yes, but I’m not.”

This story is not, to my knowledge, about a family in Vermont. But after traveling to Vermont for a week this summer, it seems practically tailor-made to describe Jewish life there.

I heard the story from former Merion resident Sara Esther Crispe, who moved with her rabbi husband and four children to Danby, Vt., two years ago to create the perfect setting for their Jewish living-learning venture called Interinclusion. She used the tale to illustrate how nature influences people here — in particular, those who attend Interinclusion’s retreats.

“It brings out that openness,” she said. “To be able to sit and just hear the birds — no traffic, no distraction — it really refocuses you.”

Vermont is nearly 80 percent forest. There are mountains everywhere you look. There are also endless great swathes of fields and farms, cut through by single-lane roads, and long stretches of unspoiled, bucolic scenery. All the little towns — with their clapboard houses, church steeples and Main Street commerce — are as quaint and picturesque as Bedford Falls. I’ve been all over the United States, and I’ve never been anywhere that feels quite as divorced from the contemporary moment as Vermont does.

Surely this is why so many Jewish people in Vermont look for and find deeper meaning in the natural world, even if they’ve been accustomed to the crush of big-city life.

When I visited the Crispe family, I figured at least one of the family’s teenagers would be sulky about moving from the Philly area to what some kids might characterize as the middle of nowhere. But the opposite was true.

“Within Vermont, there’s so much to do,” said 17-year-old Nava Crispe. “You have to drive farther, but there are antique shops, country shops, museums, historical societies, cute towns, picnics. Because there’s nothing to do within a mile of our house, you’re almost forced to go out and explore the rest of the state, which I like. You’re not distracted as much by crowds and noise and busyness of everyday life that tends to happen more in cities and in suburbs. You have more time to do things.”

“Since we’ve moved here,” said Sara Esther Crispe, “the kids have discovered interests that they never would have. Like Netanel is very into metal detecting, and he’s constantly digging things up and hiking around and finding old wells and [learning] history and meeting with people and interviewing them — something he never did in Philly.

“[Two of our kids] intern on an agricultural farm. I’ve got [city] friends who are like, ‘All my kids are doing all summer is sitting on their iPads and watching movies and TV and I can’t get them to do anything,’ and here, you spend your day outside exploring and doing.”

The state infrastructure is set up to encourage a love of the outdoors in children, making activities accessible to all.

“There isn’t a financial discrepancy in the same way,” said Sara Esther Crispe. “Nature is for everyone. So you don’t have that sense of, “Oh, this one’s going to the Palmas in Hawaii over the break, and I’m stuck [at home], or this one’s at overnight camp.” It’s something everyone can partake in. There’s a shared sense of love of beauty.”

Nava noted that there’s a long Jewish tradition of finding God and spirit in nature.

“The Baal Shem Tov, he would always take nature walks and learn Torah and be one with everything, so he always references that,” she said. “It’s more spiritual to be in this type of environment, he says.”

There are many other Jews in Vermont who’d agree with him.

In Woodstock, for instance, sitting in the cozy, quiet office of Shir Shalom’s rabbi, Ilene Harkavy Haigh, I talked with the congregational leader about how the natural world in Vermont shapes engagement with the divine.

Rabbi Haigh — who spent 20 years working on Wall Street before becoming a rabbi — told me about a Shir Shalom congregant who moved here from New Jersey: “She said that what she found when she moved to Vermont was that God’s presence, the stillness, was so much easier to access here, in the beauty of the state.”

That notion has certainly occurred to the future residents of the Living Tree Alliance, a planned Jewish intentional community in the Mad River Valley, that I visited a few days after meeting the Crispes. The 93-acre property is absolutely exquisite; it’s no surprise people are trying to make a home there. On the day I was there, dogs and children gamboled across a ridiculously beautiful expanse of tall grass dotted with wildflowers as a group of us made our way to the woods. There, snaking trails, shaded by tree cover, led to a wooden bridge over a burbling creek — its water refreshingly cool on this hot summer day.

In between attending to the needs of her two towheaded toddler sons, who ran barefoot through the woods with impressive ease, Cheltenham native Melanie Kessler explained what the finished Living Tree Alliance product might look like.

The community will have seven off-the-grid houses for residential co-housing, as well as a community center with programming driven by the Jewish calendar. Residents will celebrate Shabbat together, as well as Jewish holidays.

“And then, as a community, we’re looking at managing the land in a permaculture-oriented way, so growing our own food,” Kessler said. “I want to do a Jewish holiday CSA [community supported agriculture], so maybe grow things for a Passover plate or potatoes for latkes and bring it to Boston. I think that would be a nice niche. Grow grain for challah.”

Kessler’s farrier/blacksmith husband, Anthony, plows with horses on a 2-acre community farm in Bristol, and he brings his expertise to Living Tree’s working lands component.

“We’re looking for families that are interested in developing business opportunities off of the land because it’s really fertile, and it is in a great location in terms of marketing goods to Montpelier, to Burlington, down to Boston,” she said.

One person who contacted Living Tree about potentially joining the community wanted to start a mushroom farm. That person, Kessler noted, “was also Jewish and was also interested in looking at their heritage and raising their families along with other families. That’s the best match for us.”

So far, the Living Tree matches owe something to the fact that Jewish Vermont operates more like a small town than a full-fledged state of the union.

“Anthony and I were looking at buying land,” Melanie recalled, “and a rabbi in Montpelier was like, ‘You should call the Oshkellos down in New Hampshire.’”

Like the Kesslers, Stacey and Craig Oshkello had been trying for years to puzzle out how to live Jewishly, communally and in connection with nature.

“When Stacey and I met in 1997,” Craig Oshkello said as we strolled the property with his son and dog, “we both had a desire to live on a working farm. I was very connected to my ski community, and she was very connected to her Jewish community. So we said, ‘Oh, we’ll do a Jewish farming community in a ski town.’” After their honeymoon, they tried something of the kind out with a Jewish family that owned a lot of land, but the experiment didn’t last. For the past 10-plus years, they’ve been homesteading in New Hampshire at the Cold Pond Community Land Trust — which is where they were living with their two children, when they got a call from Melanie Kessler several years ago.

It was a good match.

“Stacey and Craig have a very similar compulsion toward Judaism,” said Kessler, adding that Stacey — who works as director of Family and Youth Programming for Jewish Community of Greater Stowe — “was sick of having Shabbat dinners where she was the only Jew. And so that’s why she wanted this kind of community where she felt like people understood her background.”

Both couples are interfaith, too.

“Craig and Anthony are sometimes triggered by the kevah and the rules and the halakhah,” said Kessler, who appreciates that the two husbands raise questions about observance. “It’s always a good conversation to have. It’s like, ‘Let’s not do this unless we can find meaning in it and unless we can bring meaning to other people through this experience.’” Kessler is no fan of unthinking obedience. “No,” she said with a chuckle, “more like overthinking unobedience — that’s me.”

Kessler and Stacey Oshkello serve as the Living Tree Alliance’s program directors, and while the residential community has a ways to go, the Alliance hosts and sponsors other events, like the upcoming Sukkot on the Farm Festival on Oct. 15 and 16. This is the festival’s third year, and the weekend of klezmer, storytelling, meditation, kabbalah teachings, horse-pulled wagon rides, apple-pressing, puppet shows, hands-on homesteading activities, crafts and more continues to grow in popularity.

Kessler is promoting the event with outreach to synagogues, including this message: “We invite you to cultivate community cradled by the abundant harvest of an organic farm! Centered around the Sukkah, the traditional hand-crafted harvest hut of the Jews, we will explore the message of Ecclesiastes: ‘In an unpredictable, ever changing world, how do we create a life of meaning, connection and joy?’”

Kessler is ideally suited for the public relations tasks such events require. She formerly directed the chavurah program at Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek, Vermont’s largest and oldest Jewish congregation, which serves about 325 families. There, she was constantly asking the question, “What attracts people in Vermont to their Judaism?” She never came up with a simple answer.

“People who are members or want to be members of a synagogue know how to do that,” she said. “But people that are Jewish and don’t necessarily feel like they want to run back to a synagogue and find their Judaism there, well, what are the alternatives? And what does that alternative look like in a place like Vermont, where there’s a definite culture of do-it-yourself and of seasonality and community? What kind of Judaism does that equal?”

While at Ohavi Zedek, Kessler engaged non-affiliated Jews through classes at secular spaces like libraries, and she found there was an audience for that.

“They wanted that experience of meeting once a month and feeling connected to the deeper questions of spirituality and Judaism,” she said, though class attendees didn’t necessarily want to join the synagogue afterward. In fact, she realized that the lack of an institutional framework might be a selling point for some Vermont Jews, which is why she’s so committed to creating nontraditional spaces for connection like the Sukkot Festival.

After our walk in the woods, other Living Tree residents joined us to prepare for Shabbat dinner. There was Kessler’s husband, Anthony, who’d been felling trees all day, and Glenn Soberman and his college-aged son, David. Glenn, a clinical psychologist and organic gardener, lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, Andrea, who runs a developmental music and movement program for children.

The Sobermans haven’t started building their house on the Moretown land yet, nor could they even consider manual labor on this visit; Glenn’s arm was in a sling, and David — wearing a shirt that said, “WHATEVER,” and trailed by a placid Golden Retriever named Ami — was graciously helping his father navigate the property. A New Hampshire friend of the Oshkellos showed up, too.

The entire group gathered on the unfinished second-story deck of the Oshkellos’ under-construction home. Without any barriers between the platform and the trees, it felt like having dinner in a treehouse.

Kessler is a strong advocate of Shabbat observance — so much so that she exports it. That’s what she did when she and Anthony lived at the Possibility Alliance, an intentional community in Missouri.

“It’s a really, really lovely place with a focus on sustainable community living and spirituality,” Kessler said. “That community doesn’t use any electricity or petroleum and so we used to make beeswax candles. Everything is local. Everything is built by hand. Really slow. They’re not Jewish, but they say the blessings and they use [Shabbat] as a slow transition in the community. Because that’s what it is — a transition paradigm. A transition from our doing into being, which unfortunately Americans don’t do very much.”

For the folks at Living Tree, Shabbat serves as a good time to take stock.

“Sometimes we use our Shabbat dinners as a way to do a well-being check,” Kessler said, noting the importance of “having rituals that tell us the intention of how we should gather.”

“That’s why I feel it’s important that Living Tree becomes a Jewish community,” she added, “in that we’re looking for guidance from Judaism, which is about living with people and about finding holiness through our connection to our everyday life and all the people that we relate to. And so it’s a great religion to use as a base for living in community.”

As the sky went from bright blue to pink, each person on the deck went around and spoke about their week — the challenges, the things for which they were grateful — and poured some wine into a communal glass. It was remarkably quiet. The clink of the bottle against the glass, the glug-glug-glug of the wine as it was poured — all the sounds resonated and were heard. It made each gesture seem invested with significance. At the end, the glass overflowed like a Kiddush cup.

Before dinner, Kessler had said, “I have a compulsion to make meaning from tradition,” and now I couldn’t help thinking how the natural world seemed to work in concert with her “compulsion,” creating meanings that synced up perfectly with ancient and modern Jewish traditions.

Driving back to my hotel on Vermont’s twisty, dark roads, the stars bright in the sky, I reflected upon my Shabbat dinner in a treehouse in the woods. “The Baal Shem Tov,” I thought, “would approve.”

This is the second in a two-part series. The series was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and the Jewish Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Jewish Federation Endowments Corporation. 

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747


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