By Cindy Mindell
LITCHFIELD COUNTY – There is a long tradition of “outlier” behavior in the American Jewish community, the creation of home-grown religious, social, and cultural groups in response to the unique interests, agenda, location, or demographics of a particular community.
Among the most familiar is the “chavurah,” an autonomous, alternative spiritual “fellowship” of like-minded Jews who gather for study and/or celebrations of Shabbat, Jewish holidays and lifecycle events.
Two such grassroots initiatives, formed just six miles apart in Litchfield County are nearing their respective 20-year anniversary. The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life (GWCJL), based in New Milford, and the Jewish Community Center in Sherman, tripled the number of Jewish organizations then in the area. Previously, Temple Sholom, founded in 1958 in New Milford, was the area’s only Jewish organization. Chabad would add to the mix with a Litchfield center, opened in 1996.
Each new community effort was founded with different needs in mind. “The JCC is not a religious organization; ‘Jewish’ was a small part of the name,” says Bernie Hoberman a part-time Sherman resident since 1981 and a founding member of the JCC and current treasurer. “Jewish people started it, but we wanted to take care of the entire community.”
The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, on the other hand, had “Jewish” written large in its founding vision. Started in 1995 by a small group of weekenders and full-time residents, with the help of the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut in Waterbury (now in Southbury), the organization was designed to provide spiritual, cultural, and social programming for a diverse Jewish community that included Jews by choice, interfaith families, and synagogue-unaffiliated. Since its founding, the group has grown to a member-supported organization of some 125 families.
Rabbi Natan Margalit is the coalition’s current spiritual leader, hired in 2009. A Newton, Mass. resident, he is also visiting rabbi at Congregation Adas Yeshorun in Rockland, Me. and president of Organic Torah, Inc. a non-profit organization that fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment, and society.
A Honolulu native, Margalit received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a PhD in Talmud from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001.
He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
Margalit conducts all religious services and programs and officiates at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. He works with families on bar and bat mitzvah preparation, sometimes involving the entire family in study.
GWCJL does not own a building. Shabbat services and dinners, and Judaic study and book study meetings are held in members’ homes, while large social gatherings and High Holiday services meet at local venues like the Washington Club Hall, Litchfield Inn, and Litchfield Community Center.
The JCC in Sherman (JCCS) began in a defunct Episcopal church on Route 39 North, drawing some 30 people to an introductory meeting in November 1994. The group, mostly weekenders from New York City, sought to emulate the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, offering the greater community educational, cultural, and social programming. They incorporated the following month and formed a board, and held their first-ever program in January 1995. By March, the JCCS boasted 100 paying members. When the church building was sold to another organization, the board raised money to purchase land farther south on Route 39, building the facility that has been the JCC’s home since 1998. Last October, the board hired Talya Leodari as the JCC’s first executive director, part of the organization’s strategic-planning process.
GWCJL holds communal celebrations for Chanukah, Purim, and Passover, and holds an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program. Members also provide a Holocaust-education outreach in area middle schools and high schools, comprising an annual film screening and candle-lighting ceremony, and a student essay competition with monetary prizes.
Both organizations offer a range of cultural, educational, and social programming for all ages, as well as the occasional collaborative event with other community institutions.
For more information on the Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life visit www.gwcjl.org
For more information on the JCC in Sherman visit www.jccinsherman.org
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