North Conway, N.H. — Karen Eisenberg brought the homemade chopped liver. Joan Kurz brought a bagful of bottled gefilte fish. Suzie Laskin, the charoset.
And other women came to Maestro’s Italian restaurant last week, carrying yom tov staples, as the sun set over the White Mountains.
It was time for the second-night seder of Chavurah HeHarim, the Jewish community of rural east-central New Hampshire and western Maine, and the restaurant staff had prepared a meal of roast chicken, tsimmes and chametz-free chocolate cake.
But Jewish life in the Mount Washington Valley, in ski country where winter grudgingly gives way to spring, where piles of grimy snow still line the roads in April, means that everyone pitches in.
Upstairs in the restaurant’s cozy private dining hall, with framed photographs of southern Italy lining the walls, some five dozen members of the scattered Jewish community, arriving from a radius of 25 miles, showed up for the seder, many with wine or matzah or other holiday items in hand.
If you want a Jewish life where the nearest synagogue, the nearest rabbi, the nearest religious school, the nearest children’s play group is an hour away, you have to make it yourself, the transplanted Yankees in Chavurah HeHarim — it’s Hebrew for “fellowship of the mountains” — tell you. And the 90 or so members of the chavurah, including nearly a score of children and teens, are making it.
Physically distant from their families in Boston and Providence and other East Coast cities, Chavurah HeHarim is creating a mishpoche of people who celebrate and mourn together, always arriving with something for communal hunger.
“We are an extended family,” says Laskin, a real estate agent and one of the group’s founders. “We have a seder with our extended family.”
Call it potluck Judaism.
Anywhere Jewish numbers are small and Jewish resources are limited, there is more individual responsibility. But the chavurah, which is preparing for its bar mitzvah anniversary next year, offers an example of applied Jewish continuity, with a unique New England flavor.
Chavurah HeHarim is not affiliated with the Conference on Judaism in Rural New England, which began sponsoring annual summer gatherings nearly three decades ago for similar isolated Jews in the area and southern Quebec, or the National Havurah Committee, which also holds an annual conference. It operates in the spirit of the countercultural Havurah Movement, which brought a style of egalitarian, hands-on, non-bureaucratic “Jewish Catalog” Judaism to the ‘60s-‘70s generation, and of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, which reaches out to similar small Jewish communities in the Deep South.
Few such havurah groups have formed since the movement peaked in the 1980s, says Rabbi Steven Stroiman, an author and teacher who has followed the trends and belonged to a Philadelphia havurah for several decades. “These kind of things happen in waves.”
He calls the New Hampshire havurah “more the exception,” a lone group of Jews successful in sustaining itself. “A lot of these groups” that were formed like Chavurah HeHarim with a social-education-religious orientation “morphed into minyanim, because a minyan has a set structure,” Rabbi Stroiman says. As independent groups, they are “very hard to maintain,” he says. “You need people with a lot of desire.”
Because of the havurah area’s agrarian roots, no one arrives at someone’s home — or at a community meeting — empty-handed. “Potluck is very New England,” says Mike Levine, in the living room of his house that offers a panoramic view of the mountain range.
On the night before Passover begins, he and his wife Julie are hosting several chavurah members and me to talk about life as New Hampshire Jews. Everyone, of course, has brought something for nosh — a cake, a pie, some cookies.
I’ve come to help lead their seder. For the last six years I’ve done it overseas, in former communist countries, with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. This year, I stayed domestic, and the havurah invited me.
For a few hours, everyone in the Levine living room shared his or her story (devotees of the outdoor, hiking-and-skiing life, most had come originally for a summer then come back to stay) and the story of the havurah (it’s the only Jewish organization in an area that has little Jewish history and no extant Jewish sites).
When you live in an isolated Jewish region, where two Jews on a block constitute a “Jewish neighborhood,” you figure you’re the only Jew around, the havurah members tell me.
Laskin and Brian Charles, who worked at the WMWV-FM radio station 13 years ago, decided to find out.
They announced a Friday night Shabbat get-together for a few weeks on a WMWV commercial. “If you’re the only one on your block without a Christmas tree. If you know what a yarmulke is … come join us for a Shabbat potluck,” the commercial stated.
They set up for a dozen people. Sixty-five showed up. “We squeezed them in,” Laskin says.
From that dinner grew monthly Shabbat meetings, then worship services conducted from a stapled-and-photocopied “Friday Night Together” siddur, then adoption of the name Chavurah-HeHarim – The Mount Washington Valley Jewish Community.
“It’s a fellowship. It’s a community” — it’s not a synagogue, Laskin says.
This is taking place in “Live Free Or Die” New Hampshire, in the usually secular New England region.
Without a building or rented room of its own, the havurah holds holiday celebrations and “kids’ club” meetings in members’ homes. For adult education and religious school classes and bar-bat mitzvahs, they bring in trained Jewish leaders from the nearest big cities. “Basically, it’s rent-a-rabbi,” says Burt Weiss, Laskin’s husband.
The couple, like most havurah members, comes from Reform and Conservative Hebrew school backgrounds. The havurah includes the usual mix of such professions as doctors, nurses and owners of small businesses, as well as Jewish landscapers, house builders and sign makers. There’s a Jewish artist, a retired tallit maker, and a large number of retirees, including a husband and wife who lost their life savings in the Bernard Madoff scandal.
Publicizing itself by word-of-mouth, e-mail messages and notices in The Conway Daily Sun’s weekly Church Page, the havurah membership has remained steady at 70 to 90 people, out of a total population of about 10,000 people in The Valley. The group, members say, jelled when Ellie Gordon, a 40ish attorney with a young son, lost her husband to a heart attack 10 years ago.
“They brought me meals every day,” says Gordon, now havurah president. “The Jewish community took care of me.”
Today, in days of recession, havurah members help each other network when one loses a job.
Though none of New Hampshire’s havurah members are Orthodox, some have become more interested in Judaism, going to worship services more often and keeping a semblance of kashrut because of their involvement with the group, they say.
A Jewish life is possible outside of large urban centers, as long as you’re not interested in maintaining a strictly observant life, they say. For Passover needs, Shaw’s supermarket and the Hannaford Food & Drug chain set up modest kosher-for-Passover displays of matzah, grape juice and other holiday goodies. For Sukkot, the havurah stores a pre-fab sukkah in a member’s home and erects it each year on a rotating basis. For Judaica, there’s the Web. “The Internet is our Jewish bookstore,” Weiss says. “You can get anything delivered the next day.”
“You can have a Jewish community anywhere … if you have a rabbi or synagogue, or not,” Charles says.
The annual second-night seder — many members hold their own or go to friends’ houses the first night — is always the group’s most popular event. It was held at a seniors’ center for several years, before moving to Maestro’s this year.
“It was potluck at the beginning,” before the members decided to have the meal catered, Laskin says.
The crowd last week was informal, dressed mostly in skirts and Dockers. Several of the men had ponytails.
The Haggadah was abridged, “The Concise Family Seder” (Jonathan David Publishers), which presents a bare-bones outline and such contemporary readings as “Let My People Go.”
The seder was eclectic, at least for someone from my Orthodox orientation. The Moose’l Tov klezmer group performed beforehand, and Weiss handed out gold dollar coins to every kid who searched for the afikomen pieces that were hidden in plain sight.
Most of the kids, about a dozen of them, sat with me at the head table. Minimizing traditional reading from the Haggadah and emphasizing shtick to keep the youngsters involved, I handed out Bazooka bubblegum to anyone who asked or answered a question, and awarded outstanding participants with small prizes, many donated by J. Levine Books & Judaica, and by Rabbi Leonard and Lisa Levy, Forest Hills friends.
The kids paid attention throughout, competing to ask a question and earn a piece of gum.
The seder lasted three hours. At the end, the havurah members stayed to help the restaurant staff clean up.
The meal was delicious, Laskin says. But some nostalgia for the havurah’s past remains. “Maybe,” she says, “we’ll go back to potluck next