'Mountain family' celebrates

Har Mishpacha offers a small-town Jewish religious experience

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In a larger city, it's easy to take certain resources for granted. In a small mountain town, there is no such luxury. Gaps have to be filled creatively -- and that's what makes the Jewish community in Steamboat Springs so special, Rabbi Joseph Goldman said.

Goldman is a retired rabbi from New Jersey who lives in Denver and makes the trip to Steamboat once a month and on holidays to lead the growing Jewish community here. Goldman began leading the group almost three years ago.

Steamboat's Jews have no synagogue building of their own. They meet in the sanctuary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They have a small Hebrew school for their children that meets Monday nights at Whiteman Primary School and a religious school that meets once a week in the same building.

Now that the congregation has grown to almost 100 families, its members have discussed finding a permanent synagogue, but all agree that won't happen any time soon.

"The kind of people who come to live in Steamboat are very individualistic," Goldman said. "I see them expressing their Jewish feelings in creative ways. They have no problem taking different approaches to worship, like having a service on the mountain when it snows. We have a brief service, and some of us ski together. It's a matter of joining the worship with a sense of celebration. As a liberal rabbi, that is encouraging to me."

The congregation in Steamboat is called Har Mishpacha, which translates to English as "mountain family."

When Alan Sandler moved to Steamboat in 1993, he looked through the newspaper for mention of the local Jewish community. There was a small ad with a number to call.

"In those days, it was eight or 10 guys sitting around in a circle on fold-out chairs," he said. "Now, it's standing-room-only at some of the holiday celebrations."

Sandler grew up in Los Angeles in a strict orthodox family, but "I've spent more time with this rabbi than I ever did (with my rabbi in California)."

Susan Ogden, who grew up in Los Angeles, didn't get involved in the Har Mishpacha until she had children.

"If my daughter grew up in Los Angeles, she would be exposed to all kinds of cultures, but in Steamboat she may not have been exposed to Judaism," she said.

Many of the Har Mishpacha members moved to Steamboat from large cities -- Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. In those places, because the population is larger and there is a greater choice of synagogues, Jews tend to divide into factions (orthodox, reformed orthodox). But in Steamboat, Jews from all backgrounds come to the services.

"There are some people who have a superb Jewish education, and they have a different kind of religious practice and there are those who are not very knowing, but are willing to learn. There are those who are orthodox and those who are less so, but what I see is a willingness to accommodate," Goldman said. "In religion in America today, there is a tremendous change happening.

"People are on a search for the spiritual, and they are looking for different ways of worship. I have seen a great measure of openness in synagogue worship toward how we engage in our worship and how that has meaning."

At the beginning of the century in this country, synagogues in small towns often were formed after a meeting in a cemetery, Goldman said.

"Someone would die, and the Jews would gather at the cemetery," he said. "It is very important to serve someone who has died.

"My synagogue in New Jersey began in 1887 with the mourning of a handful of people in a community cemetery. They organized to bury someone, and that was not unusual."

On the other hand, and more apropos for the current generation, Har Mishpacha originally was formed by a group of people who wanted to celebrate the holidays.

The tradition will continue this month as the Jewish High Holy Days approach -- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year celebration. It marks the beginning of a 10-day period that is devoted to contemplation and reflection.

"You say 'Happy New Year.' We say 'Shanah Tovah,' which means 'a year of goodness,'" Goldman said. "The theme is to look at yourself, at your life. Look at the things you like about yourself and look at the things you'd like to improve.

"Don't ask to be perfect, ask to learn and use this holiday as an aid for lifelong learning."

Rosh Hashanah is marked by the sounding of the shofar -- a ram's horn trumpet.

"The whole message of the shofar is 'wake up,'" Goldman said. "When you hear the shofar sounded, you can't sleep. It's a loud piercing sound that you hear on the morning of Rosh Hashanah."

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown Wednesday. At sundown Sept. 24, Rosh Hashanah ends and Yom Kippur begins.

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. Jews older than 13, exempting pregnant women, fast on this day. It is traditional for Jews in many communities to give the food they might have eaten on this day as a gift to the needy. The day also features a long service set aside for study.

The service -- where Goldman plans to focus on "the meaning of God" -- is open to anyone.

"In larger congregations you have to be a member or buy a ticket to participate, " Ogden said. "Here, we never turn anyone away."

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