A Brief History
The Woodstock Jewish Congregation
On a gloomy night in autumn of 1986 a steady rain pummeled the grounds of Ian Bernstein’s Woodstock Children’s Center. The High Holy Days had arrived in the Catskills, and with them came high expectations for a group of determined Jews. They had gathered there to reaffirm the spiritual ardor of their ancestors; to kindle anew the flame of Judaism; to establish a community in which their own children might be touched by a tradition that had given strength and purpose to countless generations of their forebears. Some had doubted the will of Woodstock’s Jews to come out from their homes and proclaim, “We are here. We are Jewish.” And with the rain came more doubts. But as one determined Jew after another trudged across the muddy landscape to their “tabernacle in the wilderness”, the prayer tent began to glow with a special kind of light.
It all began with a modest bagel brunch. Laurie Schwartz and Nathan Brenowitz placed an ad in the Woodstock Times that attracted some 70 Jews. Plans for the High Holy Days were laid out; services would be held in a single room at the Children’s Center. But as word of the plan spread through the community, it became obvious that a single room would not suffice. So services would be held in two adjacent rooms. The prayer leader would straddle the doorway, addressing all congregants. Before long, however, this strategy also proved insufficient. A third room and a PA system would be required. At last, when it became obvious that the school could not possibly hold all the attendees, the planners rented a tent. In the end, more than 250 people attended our first Kol Nidre service. We have been convening in a tent for the High Holy Days ever since.
In no time at all, the flame of Judaism that was rekindled in that prayer tent began to burn with a steady glow. Jack Schechtman, who had traveled down from Canada to create our High Holy Day prayer book and conduct the first services, continued to provide prayer leadership. A Succot gathering held at the home of Stew and Maeve Maurer included a pot luck, a bonfire and, of course, the traditional decorating of the Succah. At our first Shabbat service (Friday, November 7, 1986) Jack led the service while Ruth Stein provided a poetic exposition of the song “Jerusalem of Gold.” Our very first Chanukah party attracted more than 200 people!
By January of 1987 the WJC was up and running. The original Board of Directors included Kay Goldbeck, Stew Maurer, Isabel Miller, Caralee Moor, Ilene Rubenstein, Judy and Herb Suib, Wendy Wolfenson, Laurie Schwartz, and Nathan Brenowitz. A School Committee was established under the leadership of Susan Buckler. Our first Hebrew School Teachers, Bonnie Cohen and Shelley Yeatman, undertook the critical task of introducing our children to the traditions of Judaism. By the end of June, 1987 we had already started our first torah study group, held our first reading of the Purim Megillah, and conducted our very own Passover Seder.
The High Holy Days came around once again, and our numbers continued to multiply. The Woodstock Jewish Culture School (as our Hebrew School was then known) entered its second year. In the winter of 1988 we moved into our current home, the Schackne property on Route 212 in Saugerties. On January 24, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein consecrated the space with a mezuzah hanging ceremony. That spring Robert Stowe gave us our Purim Megillah, a sacred scroll that had been smuggled out of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. On June 16 Jenny and Liz Suib were the first of our young people to be Bat Mitzvahed. Shortly thereafter, John Bigel became our first adult Bar Mitzvah.
In the meantime, a committee had already begun to seek a permanent spiritual leader for the congregation and requested guest rabbis from various denominations. These guests arrived for their “auditions” in Woodstock under varying circumstances. One such guest, an orthodox rabbinical student who could not travel on Shabbat, was “housed” in a tent that was set up inside the synagogue!
Then in the spring of 1988, an enthusiastic student from the Reconstruction Rabbinical Seminary came up from Philadelphia to spend a weekend at WJC. To this day that young man recalls, affectionately, the military chaplain’s Holy Ark and printed scroll he used at WJC that weekend – acquired by Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Jonathan Eichhorn during his army days, and generously lent to us until we could secure our own. The young man also recalls teaching the congregants a special version of Hineh Ma Tov, the first of many wonderful nigunim he would share with the WJC membership. Worshippers who attended services that weekend also have fond memories of the student’s visit. The first brief encounter was sufficient to reveal a very special chemistry between the Jews of Woodstock and the young man, our own Rabbi Jonathan Kligler. Soon after the visit Jonathan was hired as our first student Rabbi.
Rabbi Kligler conducted his first High Holy Day services in the fall of 1988. In October of that same year, the first official annual membership meeting and election took place. Wendy Wolfenson assumed the office of President. Jonathan performed his duties on a biweekly basis, commuting back and forth from Philadelphia while he finished his studies.
In early 1989 we began an annual tradition: a joint Tu B’Shvat ceremony with the Reconstructionist Synagogue of New Paltz. Rabbi Kligler was ordained in July of 1989, and we shared the simcha with him at a celebration in our sanctuary. Our list of sponsored activities continued to grow with courses in Basic Judaism and Mysticism and Diane Collelo’s now famous challah baking workshops.
1990 was filled with important moments as well; we received our Torahs from the Berger, Atun, Reicher, and Kagan families. We extended our lease for two years. Our Shabbat children’s services continued to flourish. Myrna Sameth became our President. The first of Judy Lewis’ on-going columns on Jewish Ritual appeared in our newsletter. Then, in the summer of 1991, after a splendid sabbatical during which he toured the Far East and Southern Asia, Rabbi Kligler moved to Woodstock on a full-time basis. 1991 was also marked by one of our most successful fund raising events ever; a rousing klezmer concert organized by Ruby Kohn was held on the campus of SUNY New Paltz in October, and that same autumn, Bonnie Meadow took over the reins of the Presidency. Robert Meadow created a beautiful guitar that is now used by Rabbi Kligler at all our services. Noami Halpern’s “Dance as Worship” Service became another regular event on our calendar. An Israeli Film Series brought crowds of local cinema buffs into our building. One splendid moment followed another.
Special occasions in the first part of 1992 included: the inaugural use of our own Friday evening prayer book; the establishment of the Eisenstein Library; the extension of the Rabbi’s contract for an additional two years; and the joining of the Saugerties School District with Onteora in allowing students time off for the High Holy Days.
In the autumn of 1993 Jon Lewis ascended to the President’s Chair and in June of 1994 Tina Lieberman was officially named Director of our Hebrew School. During the spring of 1995 Rabbi Kligler led a group of more than 40 WJC members on a trip to Israel. With over 1200 people in attendance at our 1995 Kol Nidre Services, the WJC had become a robust force in the lives of Jews throughout our area. Rabbi Kligler soon signed a full-time contract. During this year we also established the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Cemetery at Montrepose Cemetery in Kingston.
Geoff Miller became president in 1996 and helped us to weather the difficulties around the question of affiliation with the Reconstructionist Movement. Fortunately we were able to move on from the difficult place to find healing and reconciliation within the divergent views of our members. Bonnie Cohen was hired to continue Tina Lieberman-Cohen’s work as the full-time director for our Hebrew school. We also hired Regina Waterhouse as our full time administrator. The excellent programming continued to expand and our presence in the mid-Hudson Valley became secure.
During Susan Goodman-Goldstein’s term as president, we began our organizational phase. A new networked computer system and a CPA upgraded all aspects of our operation. It was Susan’s unlimited energy and joie de vivre that moved us forward into the technological age.
In 2001 Rabbi Jonathan took a well-earned sabbatical year. During this time, we had the good fortune to have a young and energetic student rabbi by the name of Jason Klein join us. The rich spirituality of his services and the calming presence of our president, Patricia Mitchell, helped us through the difficulties of that year - the absence of our rabbi and the tragedy of 9/11. As our programming increased, so too did our need for space. Our yurt was raised in November of 2001 and is now used on a regular basis for our Yiddish groups, adult education programs as well as for special events.
We have come full circle. Nathan Brenowitz, one of our congregational founders, became our president again. (Note: Dena Crane is now our wonderful President.) We have continued to grow at an astounding rate. Presently we have a full time staff of six. Rabbi Kligler has led several congregational trips to Israel, with more planned. We have a cutting edge Jewish educational school for children and their families run by Racbbi Megles, plus adult education programs, scholars in residence at our Shabbat services, and many cultural events.
In 2005 we realized our dream of a new building, and we were blessed again when Rabbi Miriam Margles joined us.
We are now in our twentyfirst year. Kehillat Lev Shalem, The Congregation of the Full Heart, is certainly full of life. Our cup overflows, and we look forward to a rich and meaningful future together.
Mazel Tov to us all.
Note: this history, written by Alan I. Dubrow originally appeared in the journal, “In Celebration of our Tenth Anniversary: In Honor of Rabbi Jonathan Kligler” (1995). It has been edited and appended by Patricia Mitchell and others after her.