The Woodstock Jewish Congregation, whose Hebrew name is Kehillat Lev Shalem (“Congregation of a Full Heart”) appears to have an equally full agenda these days.
On Friday evening, June 27, the group held a special Shabbat service to celebrate the completion of Rabbi Jonathan Kligler’s nearly 26 years as its congregational rabbi and his new role as Senior Scholar of the fledgling Lev Shalem Institute (“Institute of a Full Heart”), a project of the synagogue. Present at the service was Rabbi Aura Bartfeld Ahuvia, a former Jewish educator and the co-founder with her husband, Aaron, of a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ahuvia took over the reins as congregational rabbi of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s (WJC) on July 1.
At the same time, plans are moving forward to make the WJC a destination spiritual center that will offer weekend, week-long and even more intensive retreats geared to both Jews and non-Jews in the region and beyond who are seeking a Jewish spiritual experience that is not strictly dictated by traditional synagogue offerings. It’s an approach that has worked before at the local synagogue that began under a tent in a Saugerties field in 1986 out of a desire for a non-denominational expression of Judaism suited to a free-thinking spiritual community whose members were most certain of what they didn’t want.
Today, the WJC consists of some 350 households, although visitors and members of the extended community swell the ranks to about 1500 people at the High Holy Days services in the fall, requiring the rental of the largest tent available in the region. The tent is still erected in a field each year but, since 2006, the field is part of the 34-acre property that the synagogue now owns at the corner of Glasco Turnpike and Route 212, where the WJC recently retired the mortgage on its 12,500-square-foot building. This was accomplished by a congregation that is anything but wealthy but has managed to succeed even while moving to its own rhythm. It remains fiercely unaffiliated with any one denomination and takes pleasure in eclectic services that are filled with music and dancing. Fittingly, the annual Rosh Hashanah services commence each year with the singing of the 60’s anthem “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
“I had a vision of what I wanted a Jewish community to be like,” said Kligler looking back on his arrival as the WJC’s newly-ordained, part-time rabbi in the mid-1980’s. “It was a Jewish community that would be vibrant, open, joyful and kind, with no sense of guilt or coercion…I feel that Jews, because of our heritage, need an environment with their peers of radical acceptance so that we can embrace our Jewish heritage rather than feel like it is a weight being placed upon us…When you consider our beginnings, we were the anti-synagogue and we have grown into this loving community. I feel we have done very well.”
Kligler said he knew about ten years ago that he wanted to spend more time reading, writing and studying but his idea for the new Lev Shalem Institute actually crystallized about three years ago. “It’s a natural outgrowth of everything we have been doing at the congregation all these years: sharing beautiful teachings with everyone who comes looking for a heartfelt experience,” he noted.
The institute’s first workshop will take place October 8-12, a retreat entitled “Living in Joy: A Sukkot Experience.” Subsequent programming includes “The Bible You Don’t Know” with licensed psychologist, author and certified teacher of Jewish mystical and meditative practice Gail Albert, Ph.D., as well as “Let It Go: The Personal, Environmental and Spiritual Practice of Shmita” (to release or let go) with Kligler. Kligler’s regular weekly classes will also continue under the auspices of the institute. For more information, visit the institute’s new website: www.lsi-wjc.org, which, at press time, was expected to launch any day. All retreats and classes will take place at the synagogue property and out-of-town visitors will be directed to local B&B establishments or vacation rentals.