This past week I sat down and discussed with the executive director of the Jewish Communities of Vermont, Susan Leff, about her experiences leading the organization and insights into the state of Jewish communities throughout Vermont today.
What originally inspired you to start JCVT? What prompted you to create this organization and how has the situation of Vermont’s Jewish communities changed since its inception?
I had been working at Hillel, and during my time there I always had the idea that it’s not about the events but about the people. We were focused on engaging each person one at a time, but at the same time you have to have a structure for them to find their place in the organization. You can’t just engage them and have them be attached to you, that’s not what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to help them find a place where they belong in Jewish culture and tradition. So, you need to have connectors and connection points so that they can connect to something.
However, as director of Hillel, it was frustrating that the Jewish community in Vermont was difficult to engage with. I had a large amount of program resources and was able to bring in amazing speakers and musicians to Hillel and I could have shared them with the community, but I had trouble finding out who I should contact in each organization and the organizations were having trouble responding in time. These were amazing assets I was trying to share with the community, but they didn’t have the structure at the time to utilize them and make a decision in a timely manner.
Later at the Israel Center, we had trouble carrying out our mission of informing people in Vermont about Israel and to represent Israel to the people of Vermont. What we found that it was really hard to talk to people in Vermont about Israel because it was assumed, we were right wing and that we wanted to indoctrinate people. So, we decided that it was important that we had the opportunity to talk to people without prejudice, so the Israel Center morphed into the Jewish Communities of Vermont, because we really want to talk to Jews in Vermont about many things, including Israel.
People had kept telling me that there was no Jewish life in Vermont, and I knew that it just wasn’t the case. There was siloed Jewish life in Vermont where synagogues in each town would have no contact whatsoever with each other. To bring in a famous writer, a single synagogue couldn’t do that, but two together could have in sharing the cost. There was unfortunately not mechanism for synagogues to collaborate like that then. So, there were several problems which I was trying to solve. One was to be able to speak to a broad section of Jews in Vermont, which we can do now on any given day. Another was to mentor Jewish organizations to make it more possible for individuals to connect. And, we wanted to strengthen the Jewish community and connect the Jewish community.
I think that we’ve succeeded, not completely, but we are on our way to fulfilling the promise that we’ve made.
Can you describe the mission of JCVT? What does a vibrant one Jewish Vermont meant to you and what would that look like?
Our vision and our mission are interconnected but are not the same. The vision is that we want to be the catalyst for creating a connected Jewish Vermont, which is what we mean by a “one Jewish Vermont”, rather than being siloed and having synagogues which never communicate with one another. We wanted to expand the conversation and to provide the opportunities for the people to connect, which was a radical idea. Although we got pushback, I found it astounding how easy it was to form connections. It was incredibly easy to go into a Jewish community and establish a connection that they were clearly hungry for, but harder to connect communities and get people to get together. What’s changed about our mission is that we started as a catalyst, meaning we didn’t provide programming to actually make the connections between people. Over the years we realized that we needed to provide the opportunities for those connections to happen, on a large and small scale. Our three summits have been large scale meetings of people who are doing the same work all over the state, and it’s really gratifying to go into those events now and see people greeting each other who haven’t seen each other since the last event. The other aspect is regional development, so that Stowe and Montpelier can do lots of programming together or synagogues in Burlington can host events and collaborate with one another. Living Tree Alliance, which was just an idea when we started, is now a hub of where people can get together and events can be hosted. It’s hard to pick up the phone and call someone you’ve never met before to cosponsor your event, but it’s not hard to call someone you’ve met before through our organization’s events and work with them. In network weaving, the basic premise is that you need someone to complete the triangle.
Recently, I’ve come to realize that another thing we’re doing is convening conversations, through programming like the parenting classes, getting the presidents of synagogues together, having conversations about anti-Semitism. At our summit, we convened many conversations together. Everything we do does come under the umbrella of convening conversations.
What are the major issues which the various Jewish communities in Vermont face? How can they be addressed and what can the communities do to overcome these issues?
There are four which I can think of off the top of my head. First is that in Burlington there are a few synagogues, but in the rest of the state there is a synagogue about every fifty miles. What that means is that if you’re orthodox or reform or just Jewish, you have the choice of going to that synagogue or not going to synagogue at all. It puts a lot of pressure on a synagogue to provide for a wide range of people, and they need all those members to remain viable. It is certainly a source of tension within each synagogue, even in Burlington.
Second is funding for Jewish organizations. This issue is twofold, in that old industrial towns don’t have a lot of money and employing a rabbi is expensive. Unlike other areas like the greater Boston region or Long Island where there is plenty of funding for Jewish life, funding in Vermont is much more restricted. There are no regional funding organizations for Vermont Jewish organizations and no Vermont Jewish foundations either. However, JCVT does raise money for programming and sponsoring events, but not organizations like a traditional federation would.
The third issue is demographics. All over the world people are having less children. The birthrate in the US is below the replacement level, and that problem is worse in the Jewish population than the general population. With the exception of the orthodox population, I would say that the average for a Jewish couple is one child and there’s lots of couples with no children. Those children are also getting older, where the average age is now thirty-two. We don’t know why this is taking place, but it’s having a huge impact on Jewish organizations.
Lastly, Jewish millennials and gen-Xers aren’t joiners in general. If synagogues want those people to be joining, they need to provide them with something of value, which is not always clear what it is. What I saw in Hillel was that students are more than capable of being leaders, but they are almost never invited to take part in leadership positions in established Jewish organizations outside of Hillel.
Synagogues need to find ways of engaging people who are not currently engaged. Finding ways to connecting to these people is vital for keeping synagogues in Vermont alive for quite some time.
For all these issues, being aware that your community is made up of people, being responsive to those people, being agile in providing what people are looking for, and providing vitality within the community are the core aspects of what communities need to face them. If there’s no sense of spirituality there’s no reason to go to synagogue, other than tradition. People don’t come to synagogue because they’re supposed to, they come because they want to and they’re getting something positive out of the experience.
How has the experience of directing JCVT changed your perspective on Judaism and Jewish community?
I’m more convinced than ever that if you’re Jewish, you’re simply Jewish. How you connect to the community is the question. We need to respect people’s sovereignty over their own Jewish experience while at the same time offering them something of value. It’s about the experience of the individual, and the organizations need to be reflective to that. While I thought that when I started, I now see it play out every day.
What’s something that each member of the Jewish communities of Vermont can do to support the mission of JCVT?
First, taking part and participating in their own organization while at the same time being open to trying something new and finding out what’s going on in other parts of the community. What I’d really love to see people do is to be flexible in meeting new people. Also, Jewish Communities of Vermont is mostly supported by Jewish Vermonters, and it’s sometimes hard for people to see exactly how JCVT is benefitting them specifically. But they are benefitting through the benefits to their community. They’re benefitting every day, through our events like the Purim festival at Arts Riot, or the Hanukah party at the Zen Barn, which would not have happened without JCVT. There’s also a lot of behind the scenes stuff that goes on which benefits everyone, such as the Rabbis and Presidents of organizations and synagogues meeting together now and convening conversations.
Every Jewish organization is providing a richer and bigger Jewish life for their members than they were before. Our newsletter, which allows people to know what’s going on and give connections for people find events has had the benefit that synagogues can see other synagogue’s events and make their own events better as a result. People are benefitting from the imagination that another group of people are putting into events. So not only are there all these events taking place now which everyone can participate in, but there is an imaginative energy being put into the events so that they continuously get better and better. This exchange of ideas raises the standard for everyone. At any gathering of Jewish people, they’re looking for one thing: a meaningful conversation. The events are convening meaningful conversations, they are vehicles for providing a meaningful experience for everyone, both members and an expansion of membership.
What would you say are your most memorable moments so far in your time directing JCVT?
I would say there are two things which I find most meaningful. One on one conversations, where I can connect with people such as yourself and enter a mentoring relationship are very meaningful for me. The highpoints throughout the past few years have been the conferences and events. Seeing people who never knew each other before now working together is an incredible experience. When people come together, and I realize I created connections which made our events possible and building lifelong relationships too. Without all these relationships we’ve fostered, we couldn’t make our mission happen. At this last conference, people came to the conference ready to be Jewish together and came for the Jewish experience. That willingness to join into the group was part of what contributed to almost the magic of the conference as a whole this year.