A Utopian Experience Gets Better

by R. Wineberg - CHAUTAUQUA, NY

August 23, 2002

Dr. George and Sheila Gitlitz, of Sarasota, Florida are regular summer vacationers at Chautauqua. But it wasn’t until they joined the newly established “Jewish Discussion Group” that the experience would take on a whole new dimension.

Surprisingly, there is a sizable Jewish population in this predominantly Christian intellectual and spiritual oasis in upstate New York. According to Rabbi Zalman Wilenkin, who has just spent a second summer at The Chautauqua Institute with his wife Esther and their two children, 30% of Chautauqua's 150,000 summer visitors are Jewish, and searching for serious answers. While Judaism may not be the subject they expected to explore at Chautauqua, a growing number of them are finding answers to long-held questions and discovering in their own religion a depth of intellectual stimulation they had never known.

The Chautauqua Institute is possibly the least likely of places one would expect to encounter a Chabad presence. Founded in 1874 as a Christian retreat center, Chautauqua grew to become, in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth, an exclusive retreat for the intellectual and political high society of the country, minus Jews, who were barred entry. In the 1950's, having fallen on economic hard times, the Institute changed its mission statement to include "all people, of all faiths," and quickly became the summer retreat of choice for the academic and intellectual elite, among them a growing percentage of Jews.

The Wilenkins arrived in Chautauqua for the summer of 2001, to found “The Jewish Discussion Group,” offering classes on a wide range of Jewish subjects and inviting the community for Shabbat services and meals.

“The classes are so thought provoking and there’s a very strong sense of community and tradition growing around the Jewish Discussion Group,” says Sheila Gilitz. “It has made our summers so meaningful.”

A lakeside, gated community, Chautauqua offers a utopian sort of existence for its visitors, most of whom are distinguished professionals and academics, who vacation there year after year in the course of the 9-week summer season. Classes and lectures are offered throughout the day on every conceivable subject of interest, and in the evening, visitors are treated to a smorgasbord of the finest cultural entertainment.

Jewish vacationers, wary at first, began attending the Wilenkins’ classes, and slowly, a community of sorts began to take shape.

“Many of the people here, particularly the academics, had an impression of Judaism as a tradition-laden, very ritualistic religion,” says Rabbi Wilenkin. “And while there is that aspect, there is also the entire dimension of Jewish scholarship that many of them were unaware of.” Discussions often go on for hours after the class is over, says the Rabbi.

In addition to Jewish study, the Jewish Discussion Group offers vacationers, most of whom are entirely unaffiliated, a warm dose of Jewish tradition. Esther’s Friday afternoon Challah baking classes are a popular draw for the women as they discover the art and joy of preparing for Shabbat. Well attended Shabbat afternoon services followed by a generous Kiddush brings many Jewish families together in the spirit of the day. And a Shabbat afternoon children’s hour—many of the summer residents of Chautauqua are young families—gives the little ones their own Jewish experience. “This is a great crowd to work with,” says Esther, who grew up only several miles from Chautaqua, in Buffalo, where her parents are Chabad representatives. “The men and women here are eager and anxious to learn and are very receptive.”

The Wilenkins point to the long-ranging effects of their involvement with the summer residents of Chautauqua. “One couple from Cleveland who was here last year came back this summer and told us they had koshered their kitchen at home because of the things they learned here over the summer,” says Rabbi Wilenkin, “Another doctor from Pittsburgh finally had a bar-mitzvah this summer. He is forty years old.”

The Jewish Discussion Group, while not yet registered officially with the Institute, has the status of a volunteer organization at Chautauqua, and plans are in the works to become an official part of the program.

Rabbi and Mrs. Wilenkin expect to continue spending the summer months each year with their family in Chautauqua.

“The challenge of teaching Jewish people is so rewarding,” says Rabbi Wilenkin. “What can be a meaningful way to spend the summer?”

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