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At 25, Jewish Congregation a ‘Vibrant Story’

  • Copies of the Torah and prayer books sit in the sanctuary of Shir Shalom on Aug.  8, 2013, in Woodstock. Shir Shalom is celebrating its 25th year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Copies of the Torah and prayer books sit in the sanctuary of Shir Shalom on Aug. 8, 2013, in Woodstock. Shir Shalom is celebrating its 25th year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • In the Shir Shalom sanctuary,  Shari Borzekowski and Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh read the Torah on on Aug.  8, 2013, in Woodstock. Shir Shalom is celebrating its 25th year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    In the Shir Shalom sanctuary, Shari Borzekowski and Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh read the Torah on on Aug. 8, 2013, in Woodstock. Shir Shalom is celebrating its 25th year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Copies of the Torah and prayer books sit in the sanctuary of Shir Shalom on Aug.  8, 2013, in Woodstock. Shir Shalom is celebrating its 25th year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • In the Shir Shalom sanctuary,  Shari Borzekowski and Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh read the Torah on on Aug.  8, 2013, in Woodstock. Shir Shalom is celebrating its 25th year. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

The first time a group met, 25 years ago, it was for a Shabbat potluck dinner at the Universalist Chapel in Woodstock. Mostly, they discussed why they answered an ad in the newspaper. It was placed by Stuart and Antoinette Matlins, who were hoping to connect with other Jewish people in the area.

The Matlins had no expectations, as far as attendance went. But 30 showed up, all interested in seeking out other Jewish community members. The groundwork for the Woodstock Area Jewish Community was, in small part, laid.

“So this was the first home of the synagogue,” Rabbi Ilene Haigh said last week, a quarter-century later, walking through a kitchen and into a room now used for schooling. “Like actually someone’s home.”

Some things have changed since 1988. As more people started attending services and celebrations, the burgeoning Shir Shalom congregation decided it could no longer meet in local chapels and Masonic temples. It moved to its current location along Route 4, then built an addition, including a new sanctuary, a decade ago.

The congregation began with about 30 members. Now, there are nearly 50 children enrolled in the Hebrew school alone, which offers education to kids from preschool to high school. On the high holy days, Stuart Matlins said, as many as 250 people attend services.

Other things have stayed the same. As membership climbed, the congregation’s founding members took care to keep its core values intact. For one, members don’t pay dues or tuition for their children’s Hebrew schooling, a concept all but unheard of in synagogues nationwide, nor are there tickets for high holy day services.

“I don’t think that there are many synagogues in the country that look like this,” said Leone Bushkin, the synagogue’s current president.

The lack of dues leads both to fluidity in membership numbers, as anyone can attend any number of services or events, as well as a do-it-yourself spirit more in line with a co-op than a traditional synagogue. The idea, its leaders said, is to eliminate all barriers to participation. That includes financial as well as religious ones — interfaith families are warmly welcomed, they said.

It’s a liberal, universalistic approach uncommon in the Jewish world, which is currently struggling with where to land on the spectrum of tradition versus adaptation, Haigh said. Shir Shalom happens to stick firmly to one end.

“It doesn’t make us any less observant,” said Haigh.

“We are, from the beginning, a warm, welcoming community,” said Bushkin.

Someone will take over for Bushkin, of Brownsville, who has been a full-time congregant since 2008 and president for two years, at the congregation’s annual meeting at 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25. He or she will inherit a congregation continually carving out its own niche in a region with only two major Jewish congregations, in a pair of states with a Jewish population of 1 percent.

“I think there was a vision, but I don’t think they realized the strength of the community they were building,” said Shari Borzekowski, a congregant and nominee for president who lives in Killington.

“It’s a vibrant story,” she said. “It’s a continually growing story.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The annual meeting for the Shir Shalom congregation in Woodstock will be held on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 4 p.m. An earlier version of this story was unclear on which Sunday the meeting would take place.