A Trip to Sharon Springs, NY
10 October 2017
Today was a serendipitous trip to Sharon Springs, NY.
Not serendipitous for the seven women who had planned to go together on the trip sponsored by the Women’s Philanthropy division of our local Jewish Federation; but I didn’t know anyone from Berith Sholom was going and they didn’t know that I was going. Serendipitously, we had a congregational outing. It was quite wonderful to spend the day with them.
I had spent a few days in Sharon Springs a decade ago and was quite fond of what I remembered: a funny mixture of old and new, Jewish and gay and Korean, in semi-rural upstate NY. So when I saw the trip announced a month or so ago, I jumped at the chance. It felt a little like playing hooky … but I would be participating in the wider community (which helps our little congregation’s visibility), and after the High Holy Days I knew I would need a few relaxing days, and this could be one of them, especially if the weather cooperated. Which it most certainly did.
But then it turned out to be with my congregation after all, and that made it very sweet. The 7 members of Berith Sholom and I made up exactly one table for lunch at Miss Lodema’s Tea Room.
I can’t exactly say I have connections in Sharon Springs … but the title Rabbi gives one an audacity sometimes, and today it ended up enhancing the trip. Linda Pollack at Federation, who made the arrangements, had tried very hard to get the synagogue opened for our visit. That’s the “new” synagogue, up on Willow Street. But the rabbi lives out of town, and it’s very hard to travel on Chol haMo’ed Sukkot if you’re spending all morning in shul. For whatever reason, the local caretaker wasn’t available today. So it looked like we weren’t going to be able to get in.
And then I discovered that no one leading the trip knew about the old shul … but I did, because I had been there, 10 years ago. We walked around a bit when we arrived, and I figured out where it must be, from the curve of a street that I remembered. Maxine Koblenz, who visited Sharon Springs as a little girl with her mother and Bubbie, remembered seeing huge black limousines pull up carrying Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z”l and his entourage. (Turns out it was Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum z”l and Satmer Chasidim. Thank you Susie R. for tracking down this photography exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum!)
So after lunch off we wandered.
When I visited here 10 years ago, I stayed with one of the only Jewish inhabitants of the town — it just worked out that way, as his B&B was quite affordable. He knew quite a bit about the town’s Jewish history, including this shul, and made sure we had the opportunity to see it. I have on my bookshelf, from that day, a volume of Tehillim (Psalms) that I rescued from one of the rooms in this crumbling building.
You can see one green pew sitting at the far end of the front porch, but otherwise there is nothing out front to indicate this was a synagogue. There is bare wood on a side doorframe where a mezuzah was removed, but that’s probably true of half the boarding houses in town. Clearly the building was originally a house — perhaps a “cottage” in the grand Victorian style — and later became a prayer space.
The back, as you can see, is open to the elements.
Further back (photo below right) is a dilapidated building, maybe originally a carriage house, which had been converted into living quarters. I remember going upstairs a decade ago, and it was fairly decrepit then. I wouldn’t chance it today.
As we were looking around this afternoon, someone asked if there was a mikveh (ritual bath). That tickled the back of my mind, and eventually I pushed through the weeds to the shed-like structure which stands at the back left corner of the property. It looked, in fact, almost like a sukkah, appropriate to the season but unlikely where there is no contemporary Jewish community. It was not a sukkah; it was unmistakably a mikveh.
Mikveh mayim means “a gathering of waters.” It refers to a body of “living water” which is used ceremonially to mark transitions of personal status. Any body of natural water is automatically a mikveh, as far as I know; but for reasons of modesty and comfort, observant communities always build an indoor mikveh. A constructed mikveh requires two pools: the pool in which one immerses is filled with ordinary tap water, while the other pool collects rainwater. There is a hole (Hebrew bor) connecting the two, and when the waters “kiss,” the tap water is considered to have been transformed into “living water” like the natural water.
The design and size of mikva’ot hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. (See info about the Burnt House in Jerusalem, though the photo doesn’t show the mikveh clearly. There are some nice photos in the Wikipedia article about Mikveh.) Every mikveh I have seen has steps to assist the person to enter and leave again.
Between the size and the steps, there really wasn’t any question what we were standing next to. It was bittersweet: That a Jewish community had flourished here; that it had abandoned its former summer home and moved elsewhere, leaving behind a desolate and crumbling shul; and that we, all women, would not have been particularly comfortable or welcome in that community — at least I wouldn’t have been. There’s not much place for female rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world (!), and even less for lesbians.
Yet we claim them as part of us, part of the Jewish community, whether or not they claim us.
The photo below, looking across the rim of the mikveh, shows the bor (hole) through which natural and tap water “kiss.”
Sharon Springs was a thriving town in its heyday. (Seehere.) The town has hosted communities of Chasidic Jews, Holocaust survivors, and I think elderly Russian Jews, along with the thousands of people (Jewish and non-Jewish) who came as individuals and families for the reputed curative properties of the waters. The earliest settler families were Dutch Reformed and Lutheran. Several of the businesses that have tried to put Sharon Springs on the map in the past two decades are owned by gay men. The largest spa building has been tied up in wranging among a Korean development group for the past decade; a resolution has been reached, and permits recently acquired, and connstruction begun. So the next phase of development may be an influx of Korean tourists brought in by the busload.
As we walked around the block to the old shul, we encountered the man at whose B&B I had stayed all those years ago. He’s a part-time resident of the town and probably the only Jew living there now. I recognized him but as we had just heard some rather strong words about him, I decided that I didn’t need to complicate the situation by claiming an acquaintance.
In any case, he wanted to know about our visit, and when we told him that we had not been able to arrange for the “new” synagogue to be opened for us, he offered us the phone number of the caretaker and then, more importantly, announced “There’s always a key.” This was the second bit of serendipity of the day — our little bit of bashert: Because we met him while walking down the street, because I knew who he was, because I wasn’t shy about making use of the information he offered, we were able to see the synagogue from the inside as well as the outside. I think it was a highlight of the day.
The new synagogue up on Willow Street was built in 1904 and rededicated 50 years later. There is no congregation these days, but the building is sometimes used by those who want to celebrate a special occasion there. I imagine it’s mostly people who have a personal connection to the old days in Sharon Springs.
Thanks to “crowd-sourcing” on Facebook, I now know that the Yiddish sign (below) says “Please close the door.” The tiny word at the bottom is a sort of Yiddish transliteration of “yasher koach” (well done!); it says “sh’koyach…”
There was a simple mechitzah (divider, screen) set up, with tables and chairs on either side. Perhaps an ultra-Orthodox wedding, with men and women seated separately? In any case, the last photo captures light from the stained glass falling on the mechitzah.