Ashland, Oregon is known for a unique blend of college students at Southern Oregon University and retired Baby Boomers. It is also the site of the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and an enclave of transplanted liberals in an otherwise rooted, conservative region. It’s a place of great natural beauty near the California border, two hours inland from the ocean.
“Boomers” sell their homes in L.A. and the Bay Area and buy a nice spread in or near Ashland. There they can get in touch with nature and explore aspects of life that they had less time for back home. Secular Jews of that generation grew up with reverence for nature, a Progressive world view, alienation from Traditional Judaism, and an unquenchable thirst for spiritual meaning. Enter the intersection of Ashland with Jewish people in their sixties.
Many Jews seek acceptance in seemingly eclectic places where people are disconnected from established traditions and prone toward universalism or new modes of thought. College towns are a popular choice for Jews hoping to blend into the fabric of a diverse and thriving local culture.
One of the leading Progressive activists in Ashland is Jeff Golden, who is something of a pioneer to his generation of Southern Oregon transplants. He purchased an isolated plot of land north of town in the early 70’s as a young Jewish man from Beverly Hills, after attending Harvard. Now he lives closer to town.
Jeff’s adventures are chronicled in his book Watermelon Summer and the documentary River Dogs. But Golden grew up secular and has yet to investigate a potential route home to Judaism. He has instead devoted his life to his version of “social responsibility,” including producing a PBS series called Immense Possibilities.
When asked in a recent interview whether that passion may be related to his Jewish soul, he was intrigued. “I’m still asking myself what it means to be Jewish.” As a kid he was turned off by the darkness associated with the European Jewish memories of his extended family. But he has not ruled out the possibility of drawing closer to his roots. “I admire a lot of people in the Jewish tradition,” he concluded. “It’s a possibility.”
Other Jews formed or joined congregations after settling in town. Some had always maintained a connection to Judaism, and others felt the tug of the Yiddish “Pintele Yid,” (“Spark of a Jew”). Some also find ways to incorporate the values of their generation into their return to tradition.
Congregation Havurah Shir Hadash prides itself on nourishing that spark as they mention in part of their Mission Statement: “Encouraging new modes of expression, prayer and practice, the Havurah is dedicated to being a point of entry or re-entry for unaffiliated Jews who seek to infuse their lives with the ancient and evolving values and traditions.”
The group is led by Rabbi David Zaslow local poet, editor, and musician. He’s from New York City, but has been in Ashland since 1970. Zaslow is heavily involved in interfaith dialogue, wrote a book about Jesus, and made a presentation at World Peace and Prayer Day last year near Ashland.
Although this movement has a reputation for an experimental approach to spirituality, the congregation in Ashland affirms a pro-Israel stance on their web site, at a time when some of their peers have reservations on that topic.
Temple Emek Shalom partners with the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the City of Ashland to sponsor a homeless shelter. They also provide winter clothing and baby goods via their Social Justice Action Committee. It’s part of Reform Judaism’s emphasis on the imperative to pursue “Tikkun Olam,” which is Hebrew for “Repairing the World.”
Jyl came from a secular Jewish background in the Bay Area. While living in L.A. she found Judaism through an outreach organization. When she and her husband were ready to retire, they saw a magazine article about the best locations to do so.
“Ashland is a place where people who have a very spiritual quest in life come,” she said in a recent interview. “There is a very open approach to spirituality. The synagogues are very alive. Over 200 people come out for the public menorah lightings during Chanukah.
A lot of us have grown weary of the notion that we have to live in a shtetl.” (Yiddish term for an exclusively Jewish settlement) Jyl affiliates with CHABAD. It’s an acronym for the three Hebrew words that translate as “Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge.”
Chabad Lubavitch is a Chasidic Jewish culture within the broader spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. There are countless Chasidic dynasties, usually named after the part of Europe where they originated. Lubavitch was in an area known as “White Russia” near Lithuania.
The original European “Chasidim” of the 18th century were considered controversial free spirits of their day. This was due to their emphasis on song, dance, storytelling, mysticism and ecstatic worship. But serious scholasticism remained part of the equation.