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DIY Judaism in Red State Idaho — 2 Synagogues, No Federation, but Faith To Spare

If you want to be a communally involved Jew in Idaho, hundreds of miles from any other Jewish community, your options are not just limited; they’re also unique. For one, the round trip to attend Friday night services can be a 100-mile journey.

In Boise, one of two places in the state with a Jewish community of any real size, there’s Ahavath Beth Israel for Reform Jews, established in the last decade of the 19th century and led by Rabbi Dan Fink for the past 23 years. More recently, there’s also a very small Chabad outpost.

In Pocatello, 300 miles to the east, there’s the Reform Temple Emanuel, a lay-led congregation with no rabbi. Mixed marriages are the norm, yet the congregation has endured since 1922.

In both places, you’ll find a spirit of “do it yourself” Judaism that’s typical of all things Jewish in Idaho. The nearest Jewish federations are in Portland or Seattle. That leaves the 225 Jewish families in the Boise synagogue pretty much on their own. The number of families affiliated with the synagogue in Pocatello is much smaller.

For 20 years I was one of those Idaho Jews. I moved to my present home in Cleveland in 2009, when the company I had long worked for out west offered me early retirement from my job as a project manager in the field of technology innovation for new product development.

Since our son and daughter-in-law had married the year before and lived in Cleveland, the prospect of grandchildren loomed large. And since I could consult in my field by using the internet, we moved to Ohio from Idaho on our own nickel.

Both my wife and I grew up in New Jersey, in the suburbs of New York City. But after two decades in Idaho, the options in Cleveland can sometimes feel overwhelming.

Unlike Boise’s single congregation, in Cleveland a Jew who wants to affiliate has six types of congregations from which to choose, from Reform to Orthodox as well as Reconstructionist and secular groups. Travel time to a service can be measured in minutes, not miles.

The city is home to Reform and Conservative congregations on its east and west sides, and in the nearby suburbs. Its significant Orthodox communities support kosher markets and restaurants. It is a community of some 35,000 to 40,000 Jewish families, consisting of an estimated 80,000 individuals.

The Princess of Yellowstone

In contrast to Cleveland, where being Jewish is a constantly reinforced social reality, cultural identity as a Jew in Idaho is truly a state of mind. The state’s vast mountainous expanses encompass a total population of 1.6 million people, of whom fewer than 2,200 are Jewish. And only about one out of five of those are affiliated with the synagogues in Boise and Pocatello.

This makes Idaho a “roll your own” state Jewishly. If you’re going to be overtly Jewish in the way you live your life and act on your beliefs, it will be despite the surrounding environment rather than because of it. The lack of supporting culture and institutions taken for granted elsewhere means those who want to live Jewishly in Idaho must construct their own means of doing so through conscious, individual actions taken with deliberate consideration regarding what, why and how.

This can be lonely at times. But it also imparts being Jewish with a kind of freewheeling existential creativity that’s exciting and hard to imagine elsewhere.

Morning Minyan: Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, known together as Nefesh Mountain, lead a Sabbath sunrise service for Ahavath Beth Israel congregants during a retreat last summer in Ponderosa State Park. Image by Nefesh Mountain

This is not a state of affairs for everyone. During my 20 years in Idaho I saw more than a few Jews who couldn’t or wouldn’t live this way. After a few years, they returned to Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. The independence of the West seems to challenge many who rely on the cohesion that comes from daily contact with a large, visible set of Jewish institutions like those that exist in my current hometown.

In Cleveland, I have often been asked, if Idaho Jewish life is so stark, why did I stay? In response, I tell the story of looking for the Princess of Yellowstone. If you drive through Yellowstone National Park at dusk — say, early on a Friday evening — the light plays tricks on your eyes. As the sunset slips in and out of stands of white birch trees, it appears there is a woman dressed in white who is beckoning you to join her in the wilderness, or maybe in a Shabbat service. Who knows?

Naturally, this is an illusion, but it illustrates how the spirit of the place exerts a claim more powerful than the amenities of urban life on those who stay.

Longstanding Presence: Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise was established in the late 19th century. Its building, constructed in 1896, is the oldest continuously active synagogue building west of the Mississippi River.

You’re Not in Kansas Anymore

After living my own life in this Jewish mode for two decades in Idaho Falls, near Pocatello, my 2009 move to Cleveland was something like Dorothy’s fictional trip to Oz. It was, at various turns, great, bewildering and sometimes just hard to figure out. The good news is, there is no wicked witch on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

What was there was a large, established Jewish framework endowed by generous donors whose largesse presented me with Jewish riches beyond anything I ever could have found in Idaho.

That said, my move, regrettably, was also away from being someone who directly shapes many aspects of Jewish life in my community. In Idaho that’s how everyone does it. Here in Cleveland, I am basically an occasional participant in segments of Jewish life in a large urban setting.

In Idaho everyone gets a “turn in the barrel.” And I must add that serving as president of a 120-family congregation for two years is an experience of in- your-face directness that has the snap of a good kosher pickle. It is expected that all adults will be “servant-leaders” who organize by influence and encouragement. Everything that happens in Jewish life comes about directly from a member of the congregation who is doing it.

Cleveland, on the other hand, supports a professional cadre of rabbis, lay leaders, social workers, counselors, educators and paid professional administrators who carry out many essential tasks. Watching how these layers of people and organizations do things to make Jewish life happen in Cleveland has changed my perspective on Jewish communal life.

One of the region’s largest Jewish centers is the “Beachwood bubble,” a strip of land some 5 miles long and less than a mile wide on Cleveland’s east side that is home to some of the region’s largest synagogues and Jewish institutions.

Between 1996 and 2011 the “Beachwood bubble” saw a 44% growth in its population, due to Jews leaving the first ring of residential communities surrounding the older downtown neighborhoods.

Cleveland’s vastly larger scale also fosters a kind of “corporate Jewishness,” realized through big institutions driven by very significant funding. One congregation in the Beachwood bubble over the past two years just finished matching a single donor’s $16 million grant, which has enabled it to replace aging buildings. Unimaginable!

A key for enabling all this in the Beachwood bubble is a stand-alone, three-story office building that is home to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. In fall 2016, this large philanthropy raised nearly $32 million. Its executive director was paid $722,000 in compensation last year, which puts him third in the nation for leaders of Jewish not-for-profit organizations.

Thanks in part to support from the federation and from the wealthy donors who provide most of its resources, Jewish families living in or near the Beachwood bubble enjoy a large, modern Jewish community center with meeting facilities, a well-equipped fitness center and programs for all ages. Nearby, the Maltz Museum is a major cultural center.

Siegal College, which is part of Case Western Reserve University, provides continuing adult Jewish education. Several Jewish day schools enroll hundreds of students. And Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, where we now belong with our son and daughter-in-law and their three children, is one of several Beachwood-area congregations with more than 1,000 families as members, many of them multigenerational like ours.

In Cleveland we also found many secular, strongly identified Jews who are happy and thriving without any apparent spiritual connection through a synagogue. They can rely instead on the Beachwood bubble’s robust community resources.

For me, these rich opportunities produced a surprising, albeit somewhat temporary, sense of loss. What I missed was the intimacy of belonging — something that, for lack of a better term, could be called “village life.” Something else from Idaho that I still miss is that sense of DIY community. It produces a kind of conscious, very deliberate sort of pride.

In Cleveland, the first congregation we joined, and later left, had more than 1,400 families. We bounced around in it like small peas in a very large pod and never really found our anchor points: Try, for instance, having a dialogue on Joseph’s struggle to avoid being like Pharaoh in a Torah study session with more than 100 people in the room.

Still, notwithstanding all these contrasts, if you talk to Rabbi Joshua Caruso, who has been at Anshe Chesed Fairmount in Cleveland for 15 years, and Rabbi Dan Fink of Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, what will strike you is how much they have in common.

The two men, who maintain a personal friendship across the expanse of the continent, both work hard to avoid the “edifice complex” that tends to pull so much of Jewish life into the synagogue building. Caruso, for example, periodically holds his Torah study group at a coffee shop in a nearby Cleveland shopping center.

“We need to reinterpret what it means to define a Jewish space,” he told me.

Seeking Solace at the Mall: Rabbi Joshua Caruso holds a meeting January 11 for congregants at La Place Center, a suburban Cleveland shopping mall, for attendees to voice their feelings after the election of Donald Trump as president. Image by Marc Golub

Out in Boise, Fink and his congregation hold special events like their annual retreat on the shores of Payette Lake in the middle of a remote national forest, with guest artists like the Jewish bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain.

Blue Islands in Red Seas

Beyond that, the struggle for social justice stands out as the most notable commonality the two communities share. Both Boise and Cleveland support Democrats at the local level. But, step back to look at Idaho and Ohio statewide, and what you get are blue islands in a red sea.

Both states have vast rural areas where voters support conservative causes. For Idaho this reality has long overwhelmed the state’s liberal urban enclave in Boise and made it a reliable red state for decades. In Ohio, the state’s status as a bellwether purple state went red this time. Voters cast the majority of their votes for Donald Trump.

Cleveland’s anticipated anchor role in delivering the state to Hillary Clinton was undone, in part, by a lower than expected local turnout. Ohio also re-elected Rob Portman, the Republican senator who leveraged his downstate conservative base in Cincinnati to win with lots of help from rural Ohio counties.

That doesn’t stop either rabbi from leading his respective community to pursue social justice as each of them understand it. But the wider state context can put both rabbis in a somewhat precarious position.

Fink frequently leads the Jewish community to lobby the Idaho State Legislature on human rights issues and has been arrested three times for civil disobedience as part of peaceful protests. Most recently, in January 2016 he pleaded guilty to trespassing at the state Capitol during a rally to support a legislative ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. His sentence was 30 hours of community service, and court costs. Why did he do it?

“Quite a few of the members of my congregational family have indeed suffered harm,” Fink told the court.

Caruso strives for social justice in part by challenging his community’s instinct “to stay inside the Beachwood bubble.”

At the heart of Caruso’s efforts is his role in a coalition of more than 40 local faith groups spread across the religious spectrum. As co-chair of the Greater Cleveland Congregations’ strategy team, Caruso has taken on issues such as police reform, education improvement, hunger and gun control.

The sun sets in different time zones in Cleveland and Boise, but the search for Jewish community and identity moves ahead in many similar ways in both places. Perhaps the fact that Jews in both places are now living in red states may draw them closer together.

Contact Dan Yurman at [email protected]


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