Letter from Chautauqua

By | Feb 12, 2013
2009 March-April

The Protestant, intellectual playground founded in the 19th century is now home to a thriving Jewish community

Inspired by the late 19th century belief that it was possible—through education—to build a better society, Methodists Lewis Miller, an Ohio inventor, and John Heyl Vincent, a minister, dreamed of establishing a summer vacation learning camp. In August of 1873, they boarded a lake steamer, disembarking on the lush green shore of Lake Chautauqua near Jamestown, New York.

There they founded a Christian community that grew swiftly from a makeshift tent gathering into a national forum for discussion of public issues—from foreign affairs to science—as well a cultural center with a symphony, opera, ballet and theater. Chautauqua, named for the lake, drew Americans with newly found leisure time who yearned to be at the forefront of intellectual thought. The nation’s leaders came as well—including Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and, later, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who delivered his landmark “I Hate War” speech there in 1936. The late New York City Mayor John Lindsay once called Chautauqua the “media before radio and TV.”

Today, the name Chautauqua lingers in American consciousness and has become synonymous with “open discussion.” It speaks to the influence wielded by the New York community and the hundreds of regional Chautauquas that sprang up in its wake, serving a mix of intellectual and religious fare to a nation hungry for learning. Most closed long ago, but Miller and Vincent’s camp still springs to life for nine weeks every June through August, drawing 7,500 summer residents and 150,000 day visitors. Chautauqua continues to be a popular spot for political and intellectual heavyweights from former President Bill Clinton to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

I’d heard tales of this intellectual Brigadoon for years and last summer traveled to western New York to see it for myself. I arrived on a Sunday morning just as the 10:45 ecumenical Christian service in the amphitheater had ended and thousands spilled out onto brick paths already thick with grandparents and parents with children in tow.

The park-like grounds were crisscrossed with narrow lanes lined with Midwestern High Stick-style bungalows, cottages and chalets, and punctuated by classical public buildings and grand Victorian hotels. Clustered in the center of town were churches and denominational houses representing a broad spectrum of the Protestant faith.

Despite its WASPy ambience, Chautauqua is home to a thriving Jewish community, which comprises up to one third of the residents and guests. “We are all over the place,” says Ken Fradin, a retired Buffalo lawyer, one of the first Jews appointed to serve on the Chautauqua Institution board and who, like nearly everyone else I met, looks as if he spends a lot of time on the tennis court. “We’ve become important, prominent and totally accepted,” he says.

The story of how a Jewish community came to flourish at Chautauqua is a fascinating reflection of the Jewish trajectory in American society, says Joan Campbell, chair of the Chautauqua Institution’s religion department. She lauds Chautauqua’s Jewish residents for being the catalyst for change. “The Jews are the ones who broke the barrier to move this community beyond a purely Christian place to a place that welcomes all faiths,” she says.


Along the shore, near a beach and the marina, is Palestine Park. A favorite place for young children to scamper is the park’s scale model of the Holy Land as it was at the time of Jesus. Built in the late 1800s, this Holy Land, complete with Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Beersheba serves as a longstanding reminder of Chautauqua’s fascination with the Old Testament.

Unlike typical Methodist tent societies of the era, Miller and Vincent took pains to focus on education, avoid revivalism and make Chautauqua “all denominational,” says Campbell, which in those days meant including other Protestant churches. This openness did not extend to Catholicism or Judaism, but did not preclude individual Jews and Catholics from participating at Chautauqua.

Christian biblical scholars, not Jewish ones, were called upon to teach Hebrew and Old Testament studies, though Jews were included on what was known as the Chautauqua platform, says Chautauqua Institution archivist Jonathan Schmitz. The first Jewish speaker, in 1891, was Gustav Gottheil, a prominent liberal rabbi who led New York City’s Temple Emanu-El. He spoke about Judaism and Jewish immigration, provocative subjects at a time when East European Jews were pouring into the United States. Two years later, Philadelphia Rabbi Henry Berkowitz, one of the early graduates of Hebrew Union College, lectured at Chautauqua for the first time.

Chautauqua’s innovative adult education programs and progressive philosophy intrigued liberal Jews like Gottheil and Berkowitz. “Jews in the know and intellectual Jews knew about Chautauqua,” says Schmitz. “These Jews were accustomed to living in a Protestant world and it wasn’t hard for them to be comfortable at Chautauqua.” Records show that nine members of the first class in 1884 of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—a pioneering great books reading program that some consider the nation’s prototype book club—reported their faith as other than Protestant. Five said they were Catholic, four Jewish.

Inspired by Chautauqua, Berkowitz founded the Jewish Chautauqua Society in 1893. “He created a society using their methods to disseminate knowledge of the Jewish religion to Jews,” says Gary Zola, executive director of the American Jewish Archives. “He wanted to help the East European immigrants identify as American Jews and to teach them Judaism in America.”

The Christian Chautauqua circuit—and its Jewish counterpart—flourished until the 1920s, when they ran into competition from new leisure-time distractions such as the automobile, radio and movies. At the same time, anti-Semitism was on the rise in the nation. As America shut its gates to new immigrants, the Jewish Chautauqua Society—which still exists today—turned its attention to educating non-Jews about Judaism, sponsoring, among other things, visiting lecturers at universities.

Despite its liberal outlook, the New York Chautauqua was not entirely immune to the wave of bigotry. “There was a certain amount of nativism—suspicion of foreigners,” says Schmitz. During this period, light bulb inventor Thomas Edison, the son-in-law of Chautauqua cofounder Lewis Miller, summered at Chautauqua. Edison entertained mogul friends like Henry Ford, some of who were known for their anti-Semitic views. “But they didn’t have influence here,” says Schmitz. “There were occasionally speakers who defended Germany’s treatment of the Jews in the 1930s but these ideas didn’t seem to go over well. People here were inclined to be anti-German and pro-Britain.”

Throughout the ’40s and the ’50s, Jewish musicians, actors, teachers and writers, attracted by cultural programs, found their way to Chautauqua, although no one knows how many. “In the beginning there weren’t too many Jewish people, and we became very friendly with Christian people,” says Mildred Beckwith, who first visited Chautauqua in 1940 with her husband Aaron, an Emmy award-winning producer. “We were introduced to Chautauqua through a friend who lived in Jamestown, and we have loved it ever since,” says Mildred. Aaron adds: “It’s a fairyland.”

But it was a fairyland in which Jews didn’t advertise their Jewishness. Betty Shine, now Batya Ben-Zeev, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, recalls the flash of discomfort she felt in 1959 as a young girl on a hike with a group of children. “There was this girl visiting from a small town in the South,” she says. “When I said I was Jewish she said, ‘No, you can’t possibly be Jewish because Jewish people aren’t nice.’”

Ben-Zeev and her friend Barbara Wolfson are credited with initiating the community’s first official Jewish services that same year. “We were 12, I was studying violin and voice, Barbara was also studying music, and we lived in a dorm,” says Ben-Zeev. “On Sunday the housemother wanted us to get dressed up, and we said that nobody gets dressed up for our holiday on Saturday.” The housemother suggested that the girls contact a rabbi and helped them call one in Jamestown. “We got him to agree to come and give a service,” adds Ben-Zeev. “Barbara and I found a place and then got on our bicycles and rode all around Chautauqua and put up notices. All of these people came out of the woodwork. It was amazing. Fifty or 60 people came. I had no idea that there were that many Jews in Chautauqua! They hadn’t had a way of affiliating before this. And they loved it.”

This was the start of the Chautauqua “Jewish community,” which evolved into the Hebrew Congregation. Made up of Conservative and Reform Jews and led by visiting rabbis, the group holds outdoor Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services beside the lake and Saturday morning services in the sanctuary of Hurlburt Church.


Ken and Zetta Fradin are ensconced in comfy chairs in the living room of their Chautauqua bungalow on Center Street, near the square in the heart of the village. The Fradins first visited Chautauqua on July 4, 1962. “We had only a vague idea of what Chautauqua was when we drove here from our home in Buffalo,” says Ken. Zetta took the children to see a performance of Hansel and Gretel while Ken wandered the grounds. Eventually, he found himself at the lake shore, near the clock tower with carillon bells, beach and boats in slips. “I saw a man smoothing out his sail on the waterfront. The man looked Jewish, so I went up to him and asked: ‘How is it here for the Jews?’ He replied: ‘It’s great. Come.’”

And come they did, renting for four summers. Their kids ran free and attended camp while the parents had their fill of intellectual and artistic pursuits, mixed in with tennis, sailing, concerts and socializing. The Fradins enjoyed Chautauqua so much they decided to purchase a house. That’s when they learned that there was a tradition of not selling homes to Jews. “I was the one looking for property,” recalls Zetta, a slim retired social worker with cropped gray hair and a wide smile, “and I found that some people were resistant to showing me what was for sale.”

While there was no official policy against selling to Jews, it was nonetheless clear that Jews were not welcome to buy. “After World War II, there appears to have been a concern that there would be an influx of Jews,” says Schmitz. “There also appears to have been a concern about sales to people who were not ‘good’ Jews.”

But in the fall of 1965, Ken and Zetta, now in their 80s, bought their Center Street house, in which they have summered ever since. Among Jewish Chautauquans, the Fradins are legendary as the first Jewish couple to make the leap from renters to owners. “Years later we had the children of the woman who sold the house over for lunch,” says Ken. “We got to the subject that this was the first Jewish-owned house, and we asked if their mother knew. And the daughter said, ‘My mother was very smart, she checked you out.’ And the son said, ‘She decided it was the right thing to do.’”

A handful of other young Jewish families discovered Chautauqua at the same time as the Fradins, many from nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania. Vic and Joan Gelb from Cleveland stumbled into Chautauqua in 1961. “We were so intrigued,” says Joan. “It was like walking into the past.” They brought their friends Alan “Bluie” and Caroline “Kitty” Greenberg. Like Jewish Chautauquans before them, they didn’t just hang out with other Jews. “We’re friendly with the whole community and everyone is accepting of us,” says Kitty.

Longtime Jews at Chautauqua are hard-pressed to recall incidents of anti-Semitism. Several, however, related one incident of “gross insensitivity.” During the 1996 season, a group called Student Ventures sponsored by a group of conservative Christians named “Chautauquans for a Christian Focus,” ran an ad in The Daily Chautauquan announcing “Gestapo Night.”

Reaction among Jews was instantaneous. “It was a Monday morning and within minutes the phones were so hot you couldn’t touch them,” says Ken Fradin. His wife Zetta recalls that a lot of organizing went on that morning out on the tennis courts. Both were impressed by the immediate action taken by the Institution itself. “The then-president of the Institution, Daniel Bratton, appeared on the amphitheater before the morning lecture and said, ‘There will be no Gestapo night in Chautauqua.’” Later that day, when Bratton accompanied presidential candidate Bob Dole on stage for another lecture, the Jewish community came out to give Bratton a standing ovation for his decisive action. Student Ventures disbanded and Chautauquans for a Christian Focus changed its name to the Chautauqua Christian Fellowship.

“I’ve never experienced anything akin to anti-Semitism here, and I wear my Judaism on my sleeve—if there’s a Yiddish phrase I say it!” says Vic Gelb, the vice chair of the Chautauqua Foundation, the Institution’s fundraising arm. The first Jew to serve on the Foundation board, Gelb chaired a campaign from 2003 to 2007 that raised $53 million.

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