Jewish Routes // Vermont

By | Apr 13, 2016
2016 March-April, Jewish World

Bernie Sanders may currently be the most prominent Jewish Vermonter around, but this far-flung and quirky community has long had roots in the Green Mountain State. The Jewish presence in Vermont can be traced back to land speculators in the 1760s, but a more substantial group, primarily German-speaking, started settling in the state in the 1840s. The first immigrants were peddlers travelling up from New York and Boston, catering to workers at rock quarries in the Rutland area, and soon opening stores in nearby towns. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish immigration grew “because economic opportunities beckoned, mainly for merchants to the non-Jewish industrial workforce,” according to Michael Hoberman in his 2008 book How Strange It Seems: The Cultural Life of Jews in Small-Town New England. The first recorded congregation started in Poultney in 1870; the first purpose-built synagogue was Ohavi Zedek in Burlington in 1885.

Burlington attracted a number of Lithuanian Jews starting in the 1880s, mostly peddlers, tailors and storekeepers, who settled in a rural section of the city soon known as Little Jerusalem, re-creating a tightly knit community modeled after their Eastern European shtetls.

The opening of an IBM facility in Burlington in the late 1950s brought more Jews to the state. With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s, Vermont attracted Jews drawn to the “back-to-the-land” movement. The University of Vermont’s (UVM) lack of a quota in its undergraduate and medical schools attracted Jews who went there for school and never left.

Today, with a population of Jews numbering anywhere from 5,700 to 20,000—depending on whom you are counting—Vermont’s Jews are scattered around the state, often in small congregations that have had little contact with each other. Vermont’s synagogues are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Renewal—some affiliated, others strongly independent.

In 2013, Jewish Communities of Vermont (JCVT) was formed as a non-denominational infrastructure to provide resources and communications bringing together the often isolated communities. “We have a big tent,” says Susan Leff, who initiated the effort to unite the groups and now serves as executive director of JCVT. “My goal is to encourage and enable communities to learn what others are doing. People were not interested in forming a Jewish federation. We are limited in our funds, and we wanted to keep what we raised within the state.”

Fifty years ago, there were three synagogues with rabbis in the entire state of Vermont. Today there are 14, plus other organized groups. And although the official count of the Jewish population in the state is just under 6,000, Leff’s mailing list includes 8,000 families, plus spouses and children, a number of others who attend synagogue events, and some 2,000 Jewish students at UVM, suggesting to her that there might be 20,000 Jews in the state.

Today, Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek is the largest congregation in the state with 375 families. Still making history, at least in Vermont, Ohavi Zedek now has a woman rabbi, Amy Small, and a woman assistant rabbi and cantor, Jan Salzman.

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Jews have had an important role in politics, most notably Madeleine Kunin, who set a precedent when she was elected Vermont’s first Jewish woman governor in 1985. The current governor, Peter Shumlin, is also Jewish, as is Miro Weinberger, the mayor of Burlington, a post held by Sanders for eight years. “The Jewish community of Vermont is an integral part of the larger ecumenical community,” says Kunin.

Jewish culture is also thriving in this state. UVM’s renowned Center for Holocaust Studies was founded by the late Raul Hilberg, who team-taught one of the first courses on the Holocaust offered by any American university. Vermont is home to Jewish Lights Publishing, which is based in Woodstock. There are Theatre Kavanah, a Jewish theatrical company, and Dahg, a Jewish rock band. There are also several groups highlighting nature, such as Roots and Trails, offering eco-Jewish education; Burning Bush Adventures, with outdoor experiences; and Living Tree Alliance, promoting restorative agriculture. They’re the perfect fit for a Jewish community immersed in nature, as Vermont’s is.—Eileen Lavine

The Lost Mural

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In 1910, the Lithuanian Jews who settled in Burlington brought a sign painter named Ben Zion Black to town and paid him $200 to paint the wooden building housing the Chai Adam synagogue in the style of the painted wooden shuls of Eastern Europe. This included a mural that stretched up from behind the ark to the arched ceiling and depicted the Ten Commandments surrounded by two lions of Judah beneath a Torah crown.

Nearly three decades later, Chai Adam merged with Congregation Ohavi Zedek, and its orginal building—with the mural still on view—was converted first into a carpet shop and then, in 1986, into apartments. Ohavi Zedek archivist Aaron Goldberg—a sixth-generation Burlington Jew—sought to protect the mural by hiding it behind a false wall, where it was largely forgotten. When the building was sold in 2012, the mural was revealed and moved a few blocks away to Ohavi Zedek, with the help of architectural historians and conservators. With most Eastern European painted synagogues destroyed in the Holocaust, it is now one of the few surviving examples of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish folk art. For Goldberg, who is overseeing the restoration, “the mural, a superb teaching tool, helps us to recall the lives of ancestors both in Europe and here in the Green Mountain State, and to consider their rich religious, artistic and social legacy. It is a wonderful centerpiece for exploring the Jewish rural immigrant experience.”

Interesting Jewish Vermonters

Ben_and_JerryBen Cohen and Jerry Greenfield invested $5 in a correspondence course on how to make ice cream and opened their first store in a remodeled gas station in Burlington in 1978, launching what has became Vermont’s most famous commercial product. They built their business on a strong belief in social activism—and unique flavor names: Cherry Garcia (in tribute to Jerry Garcia of  The Grateful Dead), Chunky Monkey, That’s My Jam, Phish Food and many more. In 2000, they sold the company to Unilever for $325 million with the proviso that the company would continue its social mission. No longer active in daily management, Ben and Jerry continue to have creative input and, through the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, are still social activists.

sfasfsfA native of Switzerland who came here as a child in 1940—and where she served as U.S. Ambassador under President Bill Clinton—Madeleine Kunin was the first Jewish woman to be elected governor of a U. S. state, as well as the first Jew and first woman to be elected governor of Vermont, a post she held from 1985 to 1991.  When she was ambassador, Kunin dealt with the question of Jewish World War II assets and Nazi-looted gold.  A professor-at-large at UVM, Kunin still teaches and actively promotes women’s participation in politics. In 2006, on the occasion of her second marriage to John W. Hennessey Jr., then dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck Business School, she quipped, “Of course this is a mixed marriage. It’s not easy to blend Vermont and New Hampshire.”

Bernie_Sanders_(20033841412_24d8796e44_c0)A Brooklyn expat who graduated from the University of Chicago, Bernie Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968, attracted by the rural life.  He ran for governor and senator on a third-party ticket but was not successful politically until 1981, when he was elected mayor of Burlington. After being reelected three times, in 1990 he was elected to Congress as an Independent, serving for 16 years, and in 2006, Vermont voters chose him to represent them in the U.S. Senate.  He was re-elected in 2012 with 71 percent of the popular vote.  The longest-serving Independent in U.S. congressional history, Sanders became a Democrat in 2015 in order to become a candidate for president in the party’s primaries.


March // Burlington
Produced by Theatre Kavanah in partnership with Burlington City Arts, Brundibar: A Musical Tale is a modern production of the 1938 children’s musical folktale written by a Jewish Czech composer. A lecture series will be held in conjunction with the show.

April 1-3 // Stowe
This weekend for “Mind, Body and Soul” celebrates Jewish culture, music, food, storytelling and art, and includes Torah study, recreational outings and children’s programs sponsored by PJ Library Vermont.

Through May 22 // Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, Burlington
In collaboration with the Center for Holocaust Studies, this art exhibition includes a selection of Bak’s work following the war and throughout his career.

June 11-13 // Mt. Mansfield
Celebrate Shavuot during a campout at Smuggler’s Notch Campground, enjoying storytelling, games, teaching and more. Hike to the Mountain Chapel for singing and to receive the 10 commandments. Co-sponsored by the Living Tree Alliance, Jewish Community of Greater Stowe  and Jewish Communities of Vermont.

July-August // Middlebury College, Middlebury
Three- and seven-week summer Hebrew immersion programs are available for beginners and intermediate/advanced students and lifelong learners on Middlebury’s beautiful campus.

October 22-23 // Bristol
Honor the harvest moon with a family celebration at New Leaf Organic Farm, co-sponsored by Living Tree Alliance, Ohavi Zedek and Jewish Communities of Vermont. Centered around the sukkah, enjoy klezmer music, storytelling, puppetry, chanting, dancing, on-the-farm harvest demonstrations and crafts.


The Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont offers talks, lectures and symposiums throughout the school year.

Through ecological Jewish mentoring and education, Roots and Trails offers a variety of programs, workshops, retreats and wilderness trips throughout the year.

2 thoughts on “Jewish Routes // Vermont

  1. Gael Jacobson says:

    What a gracefully written, informative, inspirational article! Thank you.

  2. Leone Bushkin says:

    Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, Vt has a female rabbi, Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh. .Ohavi Zedek is not the only one

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