Jewish Community of Amherst will celebrate 50 years
By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – Located in Amherst’s historic district, the building at 742 Main St. looks quintessentially “New England.”
Original white wooden clapboard covers the exterior of the former Second Congregational Church, a historic structure built in 1837. A towering steeple still sits up on the roof. Simple and classic, the structure is reminiscent of many New England churches.
But inside, the feeling is pure Neshama.
The Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), which has called this building its home since 1976, will begin the celebration of the congregation’s 50th anniversary in September.
Over the years the congregation has grown from around 30 families seeking to enhance Jewish life in the small college town to one of 300 families dedicated to embracing Torah, diversity, social justice, chesed and tikkun olam.
A series of events will be held to celebrate the JCA’s 50th anniversary throughout the year, culminating in a gala next June.
“The idea was to make a it a yearlong celebration so we could all be a part of what is going on,” said JCA President Eric Weiss.
A committee has been busy planning the anniversary celebration, including the creation of an anniversary book. The dedication written in the front of the book honors all of the members, current and past, who have made the JCA what it is today:
“To the founding generation of the JCA who had it in their hearts and minds to give birth to and nurture the Jewish Community of Amherst, and to all of our members today who contribute so much to our growth and wellbeing, now and for the coming years.”
Janis Levy, who is coordinating the anniversary celebration, says the whole congregation has been eager to participate, especially in JCA’s anniversary book. Local businesses have had the opportunity to purchase greetings, but Levy said the greetings from the members are “double that.”
“People are very excited and they are sending in wonderful messages and greetings and photographs,” Levy said. “I think people are very looking forward to the range of celebrations we’ve planned.”
Barbara Berlin, one of the founders of JCA, is on the anniversary committee.
“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” she said. “It’s heartening to see the enthusiasm of a lot of the younger members. The knowledge that they bring to the services is more so than I think many of us had at the beginning. So I’m proud of the Jewish community and that we have grown and have served the needs of so many people. It’s a very good feeling.”
But the anniversary also makes her nostalgic for the early days.
“The community has gotten very big and that’s a wonderful thing, but that feeling that you get with small groups of people is different now,” said Barbara Berlin. “It was a very nice time when we were young. It’s like our baby has grown up. It’s thriving and that’s wonderful.”
In the beginning
The seeds of what would become the Jewish Community of Amherst began during the late 1950s when a group of Jews, mostly faculty from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Amherst College, began gathering together. Congregation B’nai Israel had been operating in Northampton for 50 years by then, but there was not a synagogue in the Amherst area.
“There was nothing up here,” laughed Arthur Elkins, now a retired professor who taught at UMass’s Isenberg School of Management.
“We were about 30 young Jewish families with kids– the Jewish population wasn’t very large. There was always an adult group that met. They called themselves the Amherst Jewish Community (AJC). They met and discussed things and had bagels and so forth. And they did that maybe four or five times a year and that was the extent of Jewish activity in Amherst,” Elkins recalls. “But there were a number of us who were younger and had kids and thought we needed some more things for our families.”
This group of younger Jews formed the Amherst Jewish Education Committee.
“Then eventually, it was mostly me, saying, ‘Why do we need two groups in Amherst with 40 Jewish families?’” Elkins said. “So we executed a merger.”
And JCA was born.
According to The Jewish Community of Amherst: The Formative years, 1969-1979 by Irving Seidman, “The goal was to create an organization that would bring together all Jews in Amherst, to support Jewish activities that are crucial to a Jewish life, and to provide a voice for Jews in the town.”
JCA met in different local facilities during those early years.
“We used to meet everywhere,” Elkins said. “We had services in the Lutheran church. We had Sunday school in the Common School and in one of the university buildings and in the masonic lodge. I mean, we met everywhere. The dimensions of the ark were that it had to fit in the back of our station wagon.”
The synagogue was also unaffiliated.
“We welcomed everybody,” Elkins explained. “If you were Orthodox and could live with us, we welcomed them. We were one of the first congregations that welcomed mixed marriages and both partners of the marriage and also one of the first congregations in the area to elevate women into very important parts of the organization.” This included Elkin’s wife Barbara, who was the first female president of JCA.
Elkins calls the early years “very collegial.”
“When there were 40 families, if someone had a party, they invited everyone. If you had a bar mitzvah or a funeral everybody came. It was a total community function.”
Both Barbara Berlin and her husband Normand, z”l, arrived in Amherst in 1965 to work at UMass. She taught in the rhetoric department and he was a professor of English.
“It was a small town. The people who wanted to go to Jewish services went to Northampton. But we were a growing population; the university was growing and we felt we lived in Amherst and we wanted our children to grow up in Amherst and get their Jewish feeling in Amherst,” said Berlin, who served as education director and teacher in JCA’s religious school during the early years.
“It was wonderful because it was a small community and we were involved with each other,” she recalled. “We were each other’s extended family, so when there was an occasion everyone turned out.”
After about seven or eight years of holding services and Sunday school in various locations, JCA began looking for a permanent home in the 1970s. When the Second Congregational Church at 742 Main St. came up for sale in 1976, 40 JCA families participated in buying the building. (Historical fact: The Second Congregational Church
of Amherst was founded in 1783 by supporters of the American Revolution who were not happy with the Tories running the First Congregational Church).
In 2001, the building underwent an expansion and renovation that added a social hall, a large kitchen, sanctuary, main offices and a foyer, all while preserving the integrity of the historic building.
Just this past year, JCA embarked on another refurbishment.
“We recently renovated the steeple which was a process unto itself,” said Eric Weiss. “There was a feeling among the people in the congregation that we didn’t need the steeple, so why renovate it? But we did.”
Community Preservation Act Funds were used to pay for the bulk of the renovation, and JCA worked with the town of Historical Society of Amherst on the project.
“It’s a beautiful building; we enjoy being there very much,” Weiss said. “The idea was to preserve it. The building itself is in an historical district in town so there was a real interest in trying to keep it that way.”
Way up on the tip of the refurbished steeple is an acorn, which Weiss explains is a symbol of fertility.
“That’s an old New England thing. A number of churches have them and I never knew about it until six months ago. The acorn represents fertility – you plant a seed and it grows.”
Much as JCA has grown.
Now affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement, there are 350 member families not just from Amherst but from around Western Mass. There are 115 children in the JCA’s thriving religious school and Shemesh summer camp program.
“We have a synagogue that has grown itself slowly, which is unique in today’s environment,” Weiss said. “We attract many young families to our school here. We have significant adult education programs. We are Reconstuctionists, so being liberal and progressive is part of who we are. Yet we maintain many of the old traditions at the same time. I think the membership overall really treasures that we can do both – we can be progressive and traditional all at the same time.”
“I think it’s a very socially progressive organization in general,” said Rabbi Benjamin Weiner. “I think that while we certainly have members who are more politically conservative… the consensus tends to be on the progressive side of social and political issues. At the same time there is a Jewish traditionalism at the core of the community… The community has a deep investment in engaging with the traditional patterns of Jewish life at its core.”
JCA also boasts active adult education, chesed, and social justice/tikkun olam committees. JCA members are also involved in issues like the environment, immigrants and the local sanctuary movement, and human rights.
“We’re called the Jewish Community of Amherst and that was a deliberate choice by our founders not to give us a more ‘synagogue-y’ sort of name. Some people actually think we are a JCC and then they see we don’t have a pool or basketball court, much to my chagrin,” Rabbi Weiner joked.
“So we are not a JCC in that sense, but we are in the sense that the goal of the founders that we continue to realize is not to be exclusively a synagogue in terms of a religious place of gathering, but a place that offers a home for anyone seeking to cultivate their participation in Jewish life.”
CELEBRATING THE JCA TODAY
The Jewish Community of Amherst will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a series of programs highlighting the different aspects of the community.
MEMORIES AND MUSIC
Sunday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m.
Irving and Linda Seidman will discuss and read from Irv’s book, The Jewish Community of Amherst: The Formative Years, 1969-1979, with key stories from interviews with many of the founders. Following the talk, enjoy afternoon tea and a special concert by the JCA Klezmer Ensemble made up of JCA members and musicians from the local community with soulful clarinet, weeping fiddles, playful trombone, old-world accordion, thumping bass, driving percussion and Yiddish vocals.
CELEBRATE YOUTH AND FAMILY EDUCATION
Friday, Nov. 1, at 5:30 p.m.
The generations at the JCA will come together to honor and support our youth and family education with a Shabbat celebration of music, singing, puppets, storytelling, blessings and more. Enjoy a musical family jam with Felicia Sloin for young children, and an intergenerational Torah discussion with the rabbi for older children and adults. The programs are followed by a delicious community meal. Open to all.
JCA SCHOOL ALUMNI REUNION
Saturday, Nov. 30 at 10 a.m.
A morning Shabbat service will honor JCA School Alumni with a festive community kiddush luncheon
to follow. RSVP Rachel Vigderman: firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday & Saturday, Dec. 13-14
To celebrate the spiritual life of the JCA, we will come together for a musical Ne’imah service at 6:15 p.m. on Friday evening, followed by an oneg with discussion and singing after the meal. Our Shabbat morning service begins at 10 a.m. and will include elements of our Renewal Shabbat service, as well as Shabbat Yoga. The d’var Torah will be given by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, a noted scholar of Mordechai Kaplan’s writings and legacy, and current president of the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement. Kiddush lunch will follow, with opportunities for further study in the afternoon.
REMINISCING WITH THE RABBIS
Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4 p.m.
This past summer, Rabbi Ben Weiner conducted wide-ranging interviews with two previous JCA spiritual leaders, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg (1989-2002) and Rabbi David Dunn Bauer (2003-2010). Both sessions were filmed and edited by JCA member and videographer, Jeff Weston. Come and watch these intriguing, profound and fun conversations, and enjoy a heartwarming winter soup supper in between the showings.
AT HOME WITH OUR MUSICIANS
Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020 at 7 p.m.
Come and enjoy performances by our Shabbat Ne’imah Band, and other talented and exciting JCA musicians, for a wonderful evening of music at home.
MAK’HELA CELEBRATES THE JCA
Sunday, March 1, 2020 at 3 p.m.
Join us for a special concert offered by Mak’hela, Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, in honor of their founders and Mak’hela alumni who are also JCA members. Suggested optional donation of $10 to be shared between Mah’hela and JCA. All are welcome.
ADULT STUDY CELEBRATION
Friday-Sunday, March 27-29, 2020
The Adult Education Committee has planned a variety of approaches for our celebratory weekend. Join us for Friday evening services, Shabbat morning with a d’var Torah by a guest scholar, followed by luncheon and chevrutah study, and continuing with a rich and varied day of learning on Sunday with a series of classes.
YOM HA’ATZMAUT PROGRAM
Sunday, April 26, 2020
The World Jewish Concerns Committee will present a program of Israeli songs and dances in celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. We will also hear from congregants about their recent trip to Israel where they learned about agricultural and environmental innovations in Israel. There will be Israeli refreshments prepared by Project Rehovot Catering Group.
MITZVAH DAY AND MONTH OF MAY
Sunday, May 3, 2020 at 9 a.m.
May 2020 will be a month where we celebrate and highlight the work of our Tikkun Olam Committee. We will kick off with our annual Mitzvah Day, in collaboration with Youth & Family Education, followed by our participation at the Gay Pride Parade. With more Tikkun Olam activities to join during the month of May!
COMPASSIONATE COMMUNITY SHABBAT
Saturday, May 16, 2020 at 10 a.m.
Join us for a special Shabbat morning service when we will honor members of the following committees who are fulfilling this mitzvah: Cemetery, Chesed, Chevre Kadisha, Project Rehovot, Shomerim, and Tikkun Olam. Stay after kiddush and talk with your fellow congregants to learn more about who is doing this compassionate work in our community, and why.
50th ANNIVERSARY GALA
Saturday, June 6, 2020 at 5:30 p.m.
The 50th Anniversary Gala Celebration will feature music and dancing, and a fabulous dinner by Project Rehovot Catering. Come help launch our community into the next 50 years with elegance, exhilaration and joy.
For more information about JCA’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, call (413) 256-0160 or email email@example.com.