MIDDLEBURY — It was back in June of 1980 that Eli Olinick celebrated what is believed to have been the first Bar Mitzvah ever in Addison County, held in Middlebury College’s Warner Hemicycle.
The traditional Jewish ceremony would prove more than Olinick’s symbolic transition to religious adulthood. It would become the catalyst for the organization of Addison County’s Jewish community, Havurah, which this year is marking its 30th anniversary.
“It’s a wonderful, warm community,” Havurah board member Karen Lefkoe said of the group, now more than 80 strong, which gathers regularly at its donated headquarters at 57 North Pleasant St. in Middlebury.
“We are very happy.”
The Havurah organization has grown from very humble beginnings. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that Addison County began to see a small influx of people of the Jewish faith, largely through Middlebury College students and faculty. The Lazarus family of Middlebury helped keep the Jewish faith alive in a county where practitioners had to attend Temple in either Rutland or Burlington.
Then came the Eli Olinick Bar Mitzvah in 1980. Eli’s parents, Michael and Judy Olinick, hosted a lunch at Mister Up’s Restaurant following the ceremony and made note of the number of Jewish residents sitting around the table.
“We said, ‘It looks like there are enough of us to organize in some formal structure,’” Michael Olinick recalled. “We started doing activities that fall.”
Havurah’s activities during those early years — which included Hebrew school, adult study programs, prayer services and religious holiday observances — were largely held in members’ homes or at Middlebury College.
There was no rabbi, so a handful of Havurah members, like Brandon resident Mitch Pearl, learned how to lead Shabbat services.
“As a volunteer organization, everyone helps,” said Emily Joselson, who, like Pearl, has been involved with Havurah for approximately 20 years. “Everyone pitches in.”
The group set an initial annual budget of $1,950, defrayed through $100 contributions from each of 20 member-families. Thanks to the dedication of such founding families as the Rosenbergs, Donadios, Olinicks, Coens, Powerses and Israels, Havurah developed a healthy and growing following. Havurah’s Hebrew School, which continues to this day, convened weekly in members’ homes. Local churches, Middlebury College and other nonprofits provided meeting space for larger events.
“It was wonderful to be meeting in people’s living rooms and generously donated space in churches and meeting halls,” Joselson recalled, though the Jewish community longed to have a home base in which to gather and permanently store its Torah.
Havurah members’ prayers were answered during the late 1990s, when the Lazarus family donated 57 North Pleasant St. to provide a permanent home for the Jewish community’s activities. The group in 2001 renovated and expanded the building to provide for a social function room, play area and a better configuration of interior space.
Lefkoe is a past president of the Havurah board and has been involved with the group since moving to the Middlebury area from Grand Isle in 2000. The presence of Havurah made the transition to a new home easier.
“We had heard of Havurah, that it had a lot of enthusiastic families,” Lefkoe said. “We knew it was here, and it was important for us to have a Jewish congregation where we lived.”
The size of the congregation has remained steady at around 80 families, many of whom pitch in to host special events and social engagements to go along with:
• Twice-per-month Shabbat evening (Friday) and morning (Saturday) services.
• High Holiday prayer services.
• Weekly Hebrew School, beginning in first grade through Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
• Adult learning opportunities such as monthly Jewish Learning Group, beginner “prayer book Hebrew” study, various continuing Jewish education events, and Jewish book discussion group.
• Festival and holiday observances including Sukkot, Chanukah and Purim celebrations, and an annual Community Passover Seder.
• Social Action/Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah projects and fund-raising.
• Interfaith community activities, such as a collaboration with area churches on free meals for the needy.
• A monthly newsletter.
• Community email, affectionately known as “oymail.”
With a stable home and a devoted membership, Havurah has been able to budget for a part-time bookkeeper. The group has also retained the part-time services of Middlebury College’s Rabbi Ira Schiffer to serve as Havurah’s director of religious education.
It was the educational impact of Havurah in particular that drew Pearl and his family into the fold. Pearl recalled his young son being intrigued by Christmas trees and lights and their symbolism, and decided it was time to introduce him to his family’s faith.
“If I was going to give our children any sense of their Jewish heritage, I needed to do something about it,” he said.
Indeed, Havurah has filled a spiritual void for local Jewish residents and enlightened gentiles about a religion different from their own.
“It is good for them to know about kids in the community who celebrate a different set of holidays,” Olinick said.
Havurah House will host several events during the coming weeks to mark the group’s 30th birthday. This past Sunday, Oct. 17, the organization hosted an open house and poetry reading that featured a full slate of local writers, including the widely published Lyn Lifshin.
Lifshin grew up in Middlebury and is a member of the Lazarus family.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]