ASPEN — When Rabbi David Segal was considering moving to the Aspen Jewish Congregation for his first position upon ordination from Hebrew Union College, he received some advice.
“Some people told me, ‘I don’t think you can create anything real there. Second homeowners are just into vacationing; they won’t be interested in the community. You can’t engage them in any meaningful way.’”
He took the job in Aspen anyway, and he’s glad he did.
”I have found that to be patently wrong, and backward,” Rabbi Segal says.
“The second homeowners, many of them spend a good half of their year here, if not more. There are different varieties of second homeowners. Some are just the summer crowd. They relocate here for the entire summer, from the end of June to end of August. Last year the holidays were early, so a lot of them stayed until the end of Rosh Hashanah.
“We have a few who are only winter people.
“Some of them do summer and winter, and spend spring and fall wherever else they live.
“We’ve discovered that they are so engaged. They are here all the time when they’re in town. The irony is that we see some of them more than we see some of the locals.”
In July, Rabbi Segal will celebrate his fourth anniversary at Aspen Jewish Congregation (AJC), which he co-leads with his wife Cantor Rollin Simmons.
Rabbi Segal still finds it hard to believe that he is working, building a community and raising his family in the vacation playland of his childhood.
He grew up in Houston. “My family would come to Aspen every summer as a kid growing up, for 20-plus years of my life. I had never been here in the winter until we moved here. Although I had skied elsewhere before, these have been my first winter and fall seasons here.
“Fall is the most magical time here. It’s special because of the High Holidays and the craziness of the summer tourist season quiets down. You get a few of the fall foliage seekers but it’s just amazing weather, beautiful colors, and quiet. It’s probably my favorite time of year here. I’m a hiking-biking enthusiast.”
RABBI Segal is the first full-time permanent rabbi in the 40-year history of AJC. Until his arrival, the congregation had been lovingly lay-led by attorney Gideon Kaufman, whom many of the congregants regarded as their rabbi.
Actually, right before Rabbi Segal and Cantor Simmons came, AJC had an interim rabbi, and before that the congregation had a rabbi who was hired as an education director to run the school while Kaufman led the religious services.
For 35 years, AJC was totally volunteer run. “From what I’ve heard there was a lot of turmoil around the search for a new rabbi, with different factions in the community. I think that has been smoothed over in the last three years,” he says.
When Segal and Simmons first came, AJC had 150-160 member families. Now there are approximately 230.
“Part of that was, I think, that people were waiting in the wings to see what got sorted out, and who they hired. I think there were people who were really connected with Gideon as their rabbi because they had raised their kids with him, or gotten to know him over the years.”
Rabbi Segal considers Kaufman a trusted advisor.
“I am happy to say that Gideon has been nothing but supportive to us, and he’s always available when I have questions or need advice on the history of the place or the people. Although he doesn’t have a title, he’s basically my rabbi emeritus. In any other shul that’s what he would be.”
Kaufman still leads services or delivers sermons occasionally. Recently a longtime Aspenite passed away at the age of 89. “Because he had been friends with Gideon and his kids knew Gideon, Gideon led the funeral. My wife and I participated, but Gideon really took the lead, and that just makes sense,” Rabbi Segal says.
RABBI Segal says the full-time resident to second-homeowner ratio of AJC is hard to pinpoint. One can start with the fact that there are more than 60 children in the Hebrew school.
It meets in two locations: Up Valley at the Aspen Chapel, and Down Valley in Basalt. (Local lingo: Up Valley refers to Aspen, and Down Valley is everything else between Aspen and Glenwood Springs along State Road 82, including Snowmass, Basalt, and Carbondale.)
The congregation had nine Bar or Bat Mitzvahs in 2013, mostly full-time residents, but that may be beginning to change. “We have started to experiment with non-fulltime resident Bar or Bat Mitzvahs,” explains Rabbi Segal. “We’ve done about three of them now.
“It’s been really interesting why people want it here. In one case, it was because the child had grandparents who live here. The child lives in New York City, and they just didn’t want to be part of the Bar Mitzvah culture of New York City.
“Another case was a Los Angeles family and they didn’t want to be part of the giant, conspicuous Bar Mitzvah scene there. They chose Aspen because it could be kind of low-key, a special place for the boy, and they could have their close family and a few friends come in, and we study with them.
“When they don’t live here full-time, we ask that they get a weekly tutor onsite, because there’s something about the face-to-face learning.
“We video-chat with them regularly. I help them with their speeches; Rollin checks in with them on learning their Torah portion and the prayers, and makes sure that’s all going according to plan. It’s been great.”
AJC’s president is Jordan Sarick.
AJC has Shabbat services every Friday night at the Aspen Chapel, an interfaith facility. They have Saturday morning services when there are Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, as well twice a month during ski season.
“Mountain Minyan” takes place every other Saturday at Snowmass. “We meet outside at noon by one of the ski lifts and do Shabbat singing, and study a little bit of text. We share names for healing and kaddish for whomever we need to,” the rabbi says.
AJC also has a morning minyan, every Wednesday, 8:30-9 a.m.
The weekday minyan was born out of a sad reason. “A little more than a year ago, a family that is very connected to the congregation — their 17-month-old passed away, suddenly, unexpectedly.
“They came from a more Conservative background as a family, and were looking to do a little more traditional kind of mourning, so we had a minyan every day for the first 30 days, which is unusual for this community.
“For the rest of the year, we agreed that we couldn’t sustain a daily minyan; we just don’t have the density, but the idea of a weekly minyan came out of it.
“People showed up for this family, really in an amazing way, and it’s been really powerful. It’s an interesting mix of people with varying levels of Jewish background, Jewish literacy.”
The Wednesday minyan is a basic shacharit service, using the paperback Mishkan Tefillah siddur of the Reform movement. Of course, there’s food for those who do not need to rush off to work.
WHILE AJC is affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism, it serves people from all backgrounds, although Orthodox Jews in Aspen have their needs met at the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Roaring Forks Valley.
“The Reform movement today really is a much bigger tent than it used to be.
“Reform worship is changing in that there is a lot more Hebrew, and I’ve heard that a lot of Conservative synagogues are starting to use guitars. We have a lot of people with Conservative backgrounds and we definitely try to make them feel comfortable too.’
Rabbi Segal says the congregation conducted a survey last fall, and one of the questions was regarding services and the use of Hebrew. The majority of people fell in the middle, which feels it’s about right. There are equal numbers of people who thought AJC uses too much Hebrew, or too little Hebrew.
“The newest Reform movement prayer book is well-suited to being as traditional as you want to be. One thing I love that the amidah has the ‘Hakol’ or ‘Hametim’ option for Reform or Conservative background Jews. We are used to the Hakol, but in parentheses it says ‘Hametim.’ and I hear people do it, and I love that — that there’s diversity.
“Another example is that we have chumashim, both the Plaut, which is the Reform movement’s commentary, and Aitz Chayim which is the Conservative movement version. We give the page numbers for both.”
AJC also serves many interfaith families.
Rabbi Segal thinks at least half of the students in the Hebrew school have a non-Jewish parent.
“I have a lot of intermarried families who say this is their welcoming place. Even though there are a lot of Hebrew songs, they feel like we make it accessible.”
Rabbi Segal will officiate at marriage ceremonies for interfaith couples, with conditions.
“My gut feeling is that the plurality of Reform rabbis have a ‘yes, if’ approach to it, as opposed to ‘yes, under any circumstances’ or ‘no, under any circumstances.’
“I’ll do it if the non-Jewish partner is not actively practicing another religion and if they want a Jewish ceremony. Part of the conversation is what it means to be an interfaith couple, what it means to raise kids that way, what it looks like to have a Jewish household.”
The rabbi and his congregation are active in the Aspen-area interfaith community. As tenants at the Aspen Chapel, AJC interacts with other faith communities, officially with interfaith Thanksgiving and Holocaust services, but also through volunteer activities, such as youths working at a homeless shelter.
Rabbi Segal did a lot of interfaith work at the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, between college and rabbinical school.
“I was doing a lot of Jewish-Christian dialogue. I studied early Christianity and ancient Judaism in college.”
THERE’S something about mountains and Jews, an undeniable convergence. And Aspen is no exception. Some say Jews make up 10% of the Aspen-area population, even more in the summer.
Rabbi Segal has wondered about that attraction, too. “I have just been reading a little about the Catskills in the mid-20th century and just how Jewish an experience that was. Of course, that’s no longer the case for a lot of demographic reasons.
“For some reason Aspen became a Jewish destination. We used to joke that we’d come here from Houston in the summers and we’d see all our Jewish friends from Houston who didn’t even know we were here. For people who decide to make a second home in a mountain location, I think that the Jewish piece becomes a deciding factor.
“The second-homeowner thing that everyone thought would be the biggest challenge — it’s not that much of an issue.
“A lot of them are major philanthropists in their communities, and maybe they don’t give to the same level here.
“Three years ago, we changed our bylaws and our dues structure. It used to say that to be on the board, you have to be a full-time resident. We got rid of that.
“We now have second homeowners on our board. That was a very important change. Board meetings are often held by conference call, or take place here.
“The best compliment I get, which I have heard from more than one family, is when the second homeowner says to me, ’We live in [insert city], but this is our home congregation.’
“That’s a real sign of success.”
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News