Letter from Chautauqua

2009 March-April

Rich Moschel, his wife Lynn and the family dog Lindey are out on the porch of their bungalow. Rich, the current president of the Hebrew Congregation, is proud of its continuing growth. “This past season, 3,500 people came to our services and events,” he says.

“Religion is very important to Chautauqua,” adds Lynn. “Three thousand people come to the Sunday service in the amphitheater,” she says as she rushes off to a lecture by Shashi Tharoor, a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations.

While Sunday service attendance is high, not everyone would agree that religion is Chautauqua’s main draw. Many of the Jews and Christians who attend services are visitors; people who own homes tend to congregate more in their own living rooms. Says Vic Gelb, “Jews don’t come here for the Jewish structure but for the overall intellectual stimulation.” Jill Bellowe, the only Jew currently serving on the Chautauqua Institution board and a Santa Barbara, California, resident, agrees. “Chautauqua is about dialogue,” she says. “Most people come here to explore ideas. They come with an open mind.”

Historically, Orthodox Jews were rarely drawn to Chautauqua. So the initial debut in the 1980s of Chabad, with its mission of outreach to secular and unaffiliated Jews, caused a stir, not among Christians but among Jews. During the summer, Chabad Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin, who lives in Brooklyn the rest of the year, conducts a daily service at the Hall of Missions and teaches one class a day. “What attracted me to Chautauqua was the intellectual crowd,” says Vilenkin, who rents an apartment in Chautauqua with his wife and five children. “I like that people come to vacation to go to lectures. It’s a perfect opportunity for Jewish learning.”

Though some longtime Jewish residents are irked by Chabad’s presence, most have grown accustomed to it, and some are welcoming. The Institution itself is very supportive, says Vilenkin. Chabad has been officially recognized by the Institution and is now one of 22 religious denominations with an official presence at Chautauqua. “The Institution has become more and more embracing of religious diversity over the years,” says Samuel M. Stahl, the lanky rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El, in San Antonio, Texas, who sometimes conducts services for the Hebrew Congregation. Chautauqua,” he adds, is “still WASPy, but it’s WASPy-lite. It’s still Christian but it’s Christian-lite. It’s the best kind of Christianity there is and a fantastic mix of culture, education and religion.”

During the 1990s, Ken Fradin, Bluie Greenberg and others tackled the Institution’s charter, which declared Chautauqua “a community which, while open to all, is distinctly founded upon and expressive of the convictions of the Christian tradition.” After years of lobbying, the charter was revised in 2000 and the word “while” removed, making it clear that Chautauqua’s non-Christian residents are not second-class citizens.

The Institution went further in 2002 when it launched its Abrahamic Program, designed to make Chautauqua a model for interfaith dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims. As part of this initiative the Institution asked the Jewish community to build a denominational house similar to Christian ones on the grounds. “A Jewish house is an important step in our living as an Abrahamic community,” says Maureen Rovegno of Chautauqua’s religion department.


Away from the heart of the village, a new Victorian-style house with an expansive porch, is rising. It is the Everett Jewish Life Center, and when dedicated on July 5, the Jewish community at Chautauqua will enjoy an official denominational house for the first time.

“With a significant Jewish population here in the summer there was no headquarters for Jews to assemble and enjoy things that such a place can offer, like a Jewish library and a kosher kitchen,” says New York businesswoman, activist and philanthropist Edith Everett, who stepped forward to fund and create the house in memory of her husband Henry. “A Jewish house adds to the feeling of belonging,” adds Everett, who often vacationed at Chautauqua with her husband.

While I visited Chautauqua, the Hebrew Congregation sponsored a talk by resident Saul Messinger. His was a moving talk to a packed house in Hurlburt Church about his experience as a child on the ill-fated 1939 voyage of the St. Louis, whose Jewish passengers were forced to return to Europe after being refused entry by Cuba and the United States. At the cookies and punch reception afterward I met Carol Wolsch of Pittsburgh. “I’ve been coming here for 25 years with my husband, who has always been in love with Chautauqua,” she told me. “I have always had an empty feeling being in a Christian environment. It wasn’t until I found the Hebrew Congregation that I became comfortable.” Wolsch became a bat mitzvah there and later a president of the congregation. “Still,” she continued. “I have always found something missing. This was the first year that I felt excited about coming here and it’s because of the Jewish house.”

The Hebrew Congregation will continue to hold services at Hurlburt Church because of its large capacity and due to tradition, a concept that carries weight at Chautauqua. Other activities, including the all-important social hour or “conversations,” a Chautauqua ritual, will move to the Everett Jewish Life Center. The congregation will use the space alongside Chabad. “The house provides the opportunity for people of different backgrounds to mix,” says Everett.

The Chautauqua Institution’s Abrahamic initiative also includes plans for a Muslim house. “We think it will attract Muslims,” says Campbell, chair of the religion department. Although none currently own homes at Chautauqua, the religion department created a young adult program in 2006 that brings in young college graduates—one Jew, one Christian, one Muslim—to work together. One of their joint activities is to lead Muslim Juma prayers on Fridays.

A committee of Muslims has begun the process that will lead to construction of a house. “The next wave is to move beyond the Abrahamic faiths to the eastern religions. Then you begin to get into religions that are less structured….” She trails off.

Campbell is delighted to see Chautauqua diversify, reaching out to Hispanic and African-American families as well as people of varied faiths. “Chautauqua is a quintessentially midwestern place,” she says. “The saying is ‘as Ohio goes so goes the nation.’ It bespeaks that our Union has become a welcoming nation for people of all faiths. Not to say that there aren’t strong prejudices that need to be overcome. I think of Chautauqua as the canary in the mine. The fact that the bird can fly shows that there is openness in our society.”


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