Diverse congregation keeps Jewish tradition alive at the Havurat

Rabbi Fern Feldman, dressed in costume for the Purim celebration, shows a copy of the Torah to the Liebo family and other attendees at a class at Huvarat Ee Shalom. - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Rabbi Fern Feldman, dressed in costume for the Purim celebration, shows a copy of the Torah to the Liebo family and other attendees at a class at Huvarat Ee Shalom.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo

For The Beachcomber

A tradition of faith and inquiry that is thousands of years old comes alive each Saturday morning, when members of Vashon’s Jewish community gather to study the ancient text of the Torah at Havurat Ee Shalom, a former country chapel now remade into a synagogue.

The Torah study is only one of the activities that happens in the rustic place of worship, built in 1926 on the Westside Highway by Lutherans. Since 2003, a large Star of David has adorned the entryway, welcoming the island’s Jewish community to observances of the High Holidays as well as other events, including weddings, funerals and bat- and bar-mitzvahs. Bet Safer, a thriving Sunday school for Jewish children, also meets there twice a month.

This is the home of the Vashon Havurah — a Hebrew word that means “a group of friends” — a small faith community that came together here in 1986 after a handful of islanders formed what was first called the Jewish Study Group.

Now, members of the Havurah describe the small congregation as a diverse group of members with openness and flexibility to all streams of Jewish experience.

“You know the saying — if you ask two rabbis a question, you get three answers,” said Louise Olsen, who has been the president of of the Havurah’s board of directors for many years. “We are like that. We are striving to create a sense of place where people can find a home for their Jewish practices — a place where they can take away what they need and bring what they have.”

Olsen described the Havurah’s current membership of about 55 families as having backgrounds in different strains of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, and even categories that stretch beyond those definitions. And because Vashon lacks Seattle’s choices of synagogues, she added, all the people in her congregation have had to embrace their differences.

“There are religious Jewish people, ecumenical and secular Jewish people, social action, intellectual, creative, visionary, cultural and even gastronomic Jewish people,” she said. “We have them all on Vashon.”

Emma Amiad, a local realtor who is also active in the Havurah, sees the group’s diversity as a plus.

“We have long discussions,” she said. “But unlike a lot of Christian groups, Jews are encouraged to debate and discuss and question. It’s not a negative thing, and we just go round and round and come to a compromise.”

Amiad, who has been involved with the group since she moved to the island in 1987, was instrumental in the purchase of the Havurah’s building on Westside Highway in 2003.

For many years, she said, the group was itinerant, meeting in members’ homes for Shabbat celebrations as well as other locations, including the Land Trust Building, for High Holiday services. And although the Havurah in the mid-1990s had acquired its own Torah — a sacred scroll, written in Hebrew inscribed by hand on parchment, that contains the first five books of the Bible — it still lacked a synagogue.

That changed in 2003, when Bethel Church put a small chapel that it owned on the Westside Highway up for sale. It needed the money to rebuild its own larger church, which had been destroyed by a fire.

“There are very few buildings that would be appropriate for a congregation,” Amiad said. “So I sort of made the offer without even asking anybody, and then called a few of our members to ask if they would put up the money ahead of time. Then we started fundraising.”

Several other potential buyers bid on the building, Amiad said, but the Havurah’s offer was the one accepted because the leaders of Bethel Church appreciated that the group would maintain it as a house of worship.

Since 2008, the group has engaged the services of a Santa Cruz-based rabbi, Fern Feldman, who travels several times a year to Vashon to teach workshops and preside over High Holiday celebrations and other events.

Feldman said her part-time work with the Havurah has been a good fit for her.

“My practice is traditional, but my social and political life is very progressive,” she said. “The people in the community are willing to experiment, so I’m able to offer them all kinds of things that we can do together, and they are game for it.”

Last weekend, Feldman came to Vashon to help the congregation celebrate Purim, a Jewish holiday that centers on the story told in the Book of Esther, which is part of the Hebrew scriptures. In it, the queen of Persia, who is secretly Jewish, intervenes with her husband, the king, when she learns of a terrible plot to destroy her people.

The two-day celebration, which Feldman called “the most wild holiday of the Jewish calendar,” included a potluck feast with wine on Saturday night, a lively event that many attended in costume. Singing and a spirited reading of the Book of Esther — both the Hebrew and English versions — were a part of the evening. On Sunday, children from the Havurah’s Bet Safer school came back to the building, again in costume, for more merriment, singing, games and crafts, along with another reading of Esther’s story, this time entirely in English.

Julie Shannon, the instructor for the Bet Safer school for the past two years, said it has doubled in size since she has been involved, and now has a core group of almost a dozen children between the ages of 4 and 12.

Shannon said she wants the children who attend to “think about Jewish concepts and ideas and what those mean to each of them personally, to raise discussions with their families and develop a personal sense of Jewish identity.”

At the school, children hear stories from the Torah and learn the concepts of “tikkun olam” — a Hebrew term that translates to “repair of the world” —  and “tzedakah,” a word that refers to righteousness, justice and the obligation to care about less fortunate people. A recent bake sale, run by the children, raised hundreds of dollars for a girl’s school in Afghanistan. The proceeds of another bake sale, coming up on April 6 outside of Thriftway, will go to a home for needy children in Nepal.

According to Olsen, the Havurah also reaches out to the people of Vashon by renting out the building, at very affordable rates, for concerts, lectures, classes and other events. Members of the Havurah are also active in many interfaith activities on the island. Most notable, perhaps, is an annual interfaith celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, organized by Amaid and held at the synagogue. Other members of the group are in charge of a community Christmas dinner for homeless and other needy islanders, held at the Church of the Holy Spirit.

But Amiad also pointed out that the larger island community has also returned the embrace of the Havurah in a deep and meaningful way.

In 2008, someone broke a window to the synagogue, crawled through it and scrawled a swastika and the phrase “God Hates Jews” on the front wall of the room with a marker. The perpetrator was never caught.

But on the Friday following the crime, hundreds of islanders gathered in the town for a vigil in solidarity with the Havurah’s members and other Jewish people on the island. Afterwards, many posted a Star of David in their windows, on their cars or elsewhere.

The show of support was greatly appreciated by Vashon’s Jewish community, Amiad said.

“It meant people will stand with you no matter what,” she said, adding that the gesture of solidarity touched a deep chord.

“Judaism is founded not so much on theology, but rather, on ethics and compassion,” she said. “I think it is important that our congregation was acknowledged and honored by the community.”

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