Monday, March 4, 2019

Green Jews

Aside from Senator Bernie Sanders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – aka “Ben and Jerry’s” – people normally do not associate the Green Mountain State with Jews. Although some scholars date Jewish interest in Vermont to the 1760s, when Jewish land speculators arrived, Vermont’s first synagogue, Israelite Assembly, was not established until much later, in 1867 in Poultney (about 70 miles south of Burlington). In 1873 they consecrated a Jewish cemetery, and built a second synagogue.

Around 1840, Lithuanian peddlers settled in Burlington, between the New York-Montreal trading route, finding a fresh area to sell their wares. One can still tour the “Little Jerusalem,” neighborhood in the Old North End of Burlington, the state’s largest city, which represented the mini shtetl where the Jews lived from the 1880s through the 1940s. Three Orthodox synagogues were built--the first in 1885, in addition to a communal Hebrew Free School. The community thrived through its heyday in the 1920s and staved off the ubiquitous American “melting pot” assimilation longer than most other communities. In 2012, Vermont Public Television produced a very enlightening documentary about “Little Jerusalem.”

Burlington’s tight knit Orthodox community hired very prominent rabbis, one of whom was Rabbi Yaakov Hakohen Meskin (1884-1956), a Lithuanian-trained sage who studied in the famed Yeshivat Kneseth Israel in Slabodka and became a prime disciple of Rabbi Isaac Rabinowitz of Ponevezh. He served as rabbi at Burlington’s Chaye Adam Synagogue from 1924 to 1931, after which he moved to the much larger Jewish community in the Bronx, in New York. While still in Europe, Rabbi Meskin penned the rabbinic responsa allowing the young wife of Shimon Meisner to remarry. Mr. Meisner was a passenger on the ill-fated Titanic, whose body was never recovered. Rabbi Rabinowitz agreed with his student’s decision.

Unfortunately, signs restricting the entrance of Jews (and others) were commonly encountered around Vermont in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Nevertheless, other surges of Jewish immigration occurred in the 1950s, as an IBM facility opened in Burlington. Another surge occurred in the 1960s, bringing hippies to Vermont, including the aforementioned Jewish kings of ice cream.

Today, most Jewish Vermonters do not affiliate with synagogues or organized Jewish life (Vermont is considered the least religiously affiliated state in the United States). In a state with a total population of 623,000, demographers estimate that the Jewish population of Vermont is somewhere between 5,700 and 20,000. There are currently 14 synagogues in Vermont.

The state of Vermont was admitted as the fourteenth state of the United States on March 4, 1791.

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