Cause for celebration: In Rutland, Jewish community continues to thrive

Rabbi Douglas Weber

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 12/9/10]
Rutland’s Jewish community may be small, but they have a lot to celebrate.

Thursday, Dec. 9, was the final day of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which is traditionally a time of much rejoicing in Jewish communities – eight festive nights of family, community, music and food.

In addition, 2010-11 also marks the 100th anniversary of Rutland’s Jewish congregation. In October, the Rutland Jewish Center, located on Grove Street, kicked off its centennial year with a celebration and open house.

The yearlong celebration will feature a number of other events throughout the winter culminating in a gala event in May.

For Rabbi Doug Weber, leader of Rutland’s Jewish community since 2005, the centennial is an opportunity for the Jewish Center to open itself up to the greater Rutland community.

“We want to demystify to the general population what Judaism is,” Weber said.

Meeting Weber at his home in Rutland Town early on a Friday morning, he is busy at work in the kitchen preparing food ahead of the Sabbath, which begins at sundown.

“Shabbat comes early in Vermont this time of year,” he said settling into a chair next to a toasty wood stove in the living room.

A grand piano takes up on one corner of the room. A tuba and euphonium lie on the floor nearby below a music stand full of sheet music. In his spare time, Weber is a member of the Castleton State College Wind Ensemble as well as the Rutland City Band — one of the many extracurricular activities he enjoys that gets him into the greater Rutland community.

An avid skier — “Why live here if you’re not going to be outdoors?” he asked rhetorically — his eyes widened as he noticed the snow flurries coming down outside.

A married father of three, Weber possesses a quiet, attentive manner and a disarming sense of humor — what you’d expect from someone whose day job requires him to do a great deal of listening and counseling. He speaks deliberately and thoughtfully, slowly paced and with a hint of an accent that belies his Long Island upbringing.

He humorously describes his decision to become a rabbi as a “process of elimination.”

“I knew what I didn’t want to be,” he said recounting a suburban childhood spent observing the men of the neighborhood schlepping to and from work in what struck Weber as a dreary routine.

During a career day in high school, Weber decided to pick the three most outlandish occupations offered: forest ranger, mortician and rabbi. While the first two didn’t stick, the last one seemed to leave an impression.

“I was the only one in there,” Weber recalled. “The rabbi asked me, ‘Are you interested in the big questions?’”

It was a serious discussion that planted the rabbinical seed.

Conversation with Weber swirls from topic to topic: the local economy, Vermont’s aging population, the current state of faith in young people.

Weber is an adjunct professor at both Castleton State College and the College of St. Joseph, where he teachers classes in Comparative Religion, Western Religion and Asian Religion.

Of his Asian Religion course at CSJ, he laughs at his being a Jewish rabbi “teaching Buddhism” at the Catholic college.

However, it’s just that type of common ground Weber seeks out in the community. He sits on the city’s Interfaith Clergy Association with leaders from Grace Church and the UU among others.

In Rutland’s synagogue. as with other faith communities in the area and around the country, Weber acknowledges a decline in numbers.

The Rutland Jewish center is currently comprised of around 80 families. According to Weber, that’s about half of what it was at its peak in the 1950s and 60s.

Officially founded in 1910, Rutland’s Jewish congregation has had its ups and downs. As Jewish immigrants arrived in the area, they set down roots and became active members of the area’s business community in both retail and manufacturing.

However, as families grew and business and professional opportunities declined, much of the following generation departed.

“The fate of the Center is tied to the economy of Rutland,” Weber said.

While Weber asserts that membership is “steady,” he notes that today’s congregation is decidedly older. Young families are a rarity; most new members are retirees or second homeowners from New York or Boston.

But Weber sees a positive in the smaller numbers. “People are more active,” he said. “And they get things done because they know if they don’t, it won’t get done.”

That activity is exemplified by the fact that the congregation almost always has a prayer quorum – that is, a minimum of 10 adults necessary to hold a service.

Weber also noted that Rutland has the only synagogue in Vermont outside of Burlington that reliably holds services for holy days that fall mid-week, something that attracts worshippers from other parts of the state.

Along with the centennial , Weber has been working on other ways of opening up the Jewish community to the rest of Rutland. He hosts a cooking show on PEGTV called “Rabbi Weber’s Kosher Cuisine.”

He is also a regular guest on WSYB’s “On the Air with Tim Philbin” where he takes questions from callers.

Starting in January, the Center will debut a film festival, screening a series of Israeli and Jewish films through March. The screenings will take place at CSJ’s Tuttle Hall Theater.

Despite their numbers, Weber his congregation remains dedicated to raising awareness of the Center and fostering a vibrant Jewish community in Rutland.

As Weber put it, “The stream may not be as wide as it once was, but it runs deeper.”

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