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Looking back on a year covering the changing Jewish Berkshires

By Albert Stern / BJV Editor

First, I want to thank you all for being an interesting community to write about and a rewarding audience to write for. Even after covering the Jewish Berkshires for several years, I am constantly surprised by the tremendous accomplishment of this community, by its creativity, by its generosity, and by its engagement with Jewish life locally and in the wider Jewish world.

I’m writing this one week after the Federation’s Jewish Community Day and the Shabbat Across the Berkshires we co-hosted with our affiliates. The events brought together hundreds of people to celebrate what this community is and what we want it to become.

Last year, my appeal for voluntary subscribers to the Berkshire Jewish Voice focused on the changing character of the Berkshires in the wake of the pandemic. At our two recent events, we saw how many people, both newcomers and long-timers, are seeking out Jewish connection through Federation. We saw how much opportunity exists to create an even richer Jewish life and engagement in the Berkshires. We all felt an energy that seems fresh, vital, and new.

Federation publishes this newspaper to enhance Jewish connection in a region that remains spread out geographically and diverse in its approach to Jewish life. We want you to know what members of the Jewish community are up to and share all the opportunities available to meet, to enjoy, and to do good works here in the Jewish Berkshires. So here’s the deal:

This publication’s revenues do not cover all its costs. Your financial help as voluntary subscribers is essential in our efforts to bring you meaningful, positive, and entertaining stories both by and about your neighbors, as well as about Jews around the world. Your generosity as voluntary subscribers last year was unprecedented, but your support remains vital to sustaining this publication. Please see the insert in the current issue of the paper or follow this link for more on how you can support the Berkshire Jewish Voice.

In my estimation, it was a topsy-turvy 12 months for us in the Berkshires – after a hopeful autumn in 2021, masking requirements were reinstituted by local health boards, and folks generally seemed to take steps backward in their willingness to move psychically beyond the pandemic. Federation was still unsure in late winter what our programming might look like and whether we would publish our Berkshire Jewish Summer guide after a two-year hiatus.

But publish it we did, and we hope that Berkshire Jewish Summer is again proving to be your go-to guide for all that is happening communally and culturally in the Jewish Berkshires.

I also want to use this opportunity to thank the regular contributors who make planning and putting together each paper so much easier. First of all, kol ha’kavod to our rabbis, who use the Rabbi Reflection column to eloquently share their thoughts about Judaism, scripture, cultural matters, and social issues. This story is a little embarrassing for me to share, but I will anyway: Not long after I started as editor, something came up that made me preempt our scheduled rabbi’s column. I emailed the rabbi slated to write the article, typing something like: “Good news – you’re off the hook! You don’t have to write the column this month!”

The blistering response I got from that rabbi – a ‘how dare you?’ that Greta Thunberg would be proud of – made me understand that our clergy does not approach the column as a chore, but as messages they put much of their hearts and minds into crafting. If you read the Rabbi Reflection column in each issue, you’ll be aware that no matter which synagogue you choose to attend in the Berkshires, you’ll be in good hands. At Federation, we are lucky to have our rabbis as partners in our work.

Carol Goodman Kaufman, our Traveling With Jewish Taste columnist, is a stalwart for this paper. In addition to her entertaining stories in each issue about Jewish food and how they tie into the Tribe’s history, this year, she also contributed interviews with bestselling authors Dara Horn and Anita Diamant, both of whom appeared at Federation events. I am so pleased to share the news that Carol has signed a contract with TouchPoint Press and is working on her first novel, a Jewish-themed mystery that she promises to excerpt in a future BJV – if we can wait 18 months or so. We can and will, Carol, and hope it will be your bestseller!

Sadly, we lost our longtime BJV graphic designer, Rose Tannenbaum, this year – may her memory be for a blessing. Our new colleagues, Regina Burgio and Mary Herrmann of RB Design Co., have ably taken over the job.

A shout out, too, to others who have shared their original work this year: bronfin (whisky) correspondent Alex Rosenblum, who wrote a two-part history of Jews and booze; Rick Reiss for Berkshire Jewish Voices columns on his Jewish journey; Federation board member Richard Slutzky, who filled us in on the merger of the Pearlstone Center and Hazon, the environmental organization he chaired that operates the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut; Ruth Kaplan on being a fan of Israeli baseball and her grandson, Baby Abie; Dr. Leo Goldberger on his Berkshires acquaintance with world-famous psychologist Erik Erikson; Professor Michael Hoberman on how hiking California’s John Muir Trail became a (partly) Jewish journey; and Mara Goodman-Davies on what being a Yiddishe momma has meant to her social work practice.

Other writers shared excerpts from their recently published books. Rabbi Dennis J. Ross on Martin Buber made the Jewish philosopher’s abstruse work more accessible, while Rabbi Pamela Wax’s poems explored the grieving process. Henry Sapoznik, another Federation presenter, shared offbeat reflections on C. Israel Lutsky, “The Jewish Philosopher,” from his award-winning “Yiddish Radio Project.” We found out what Noah, Moses, and Jesus have to do with quarantines from Stewart Edelstein of Stockbridge, who is expanding his collection of pandemic essays, The COVID-19 Zeitgeist, into a larger work

And here’s a thank you to some of the fascinating people with Berkshire ties who shared their stories in BJV interviews. Berkshire native Hannah Wohl, now a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, filled us in on what goes on in the contemporary art scene, chronicled in her new book, Bound by Creativity; novelist Alexis Schaitkin of Williamstown talked to Rabbi Seth Wax about her fiction; we learned about Alexander Hamilton’s Jewish backstory from Professor Andrew Porwancher, who spoke for Federation at our first in-person Knosh & Knowledge since the pandemic; with war raging in Ukraine, Kyiv native Natasha Dresner addressed the fears and concerns of the émigré community; Berkshire second-homeowner, attorney Susan J. Cohen, gave our readers insight into how she navigates the complex, ofttimes shambolic, US immigration system; and members of our congregations who worked so hard on resettling Afghan evacuees in the Berkshires shared their complex local efforts to help repair the lives of families upended by conflict. It was a privilege for me to interview the patriarch of one such Afghan family and share his experience of being torn from the world he knew and arriving in the Berkshires to start life again with his family as Americans.

We also provided coverage of the cultural scene in and around the Berkshires. We talked with playwright Robin Gerber and introduced the “kosher cartoon folk world” of Steve Marcus at the Yiddish Book Center. And our rabbis aren’t just good writers, they’re good talkers – Rabbi Jodie Gordon of Hevreh, who penned this issue’s reflection column, was the subject of a lively interview about the OMfG Podcast: Jewish Wisdom for Unprecedented Times that she co-hosts with Rabbi Jen Gubitz of Boston. By all means, check that podcast out.

It is always a pleasure talking to those people who go above and beyond for our Federation. This year, we recounted the Berkshire Jewish journeys of our Tzedakah Week co-chairs Tom and Suzanne Sawyer and our Major Donors Celebration co-chairs Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner, sharing their thoughts on why supporting the Federation as donors and leaders is so essential.

There was one minor moment on the job that nonetheless stood out for me this year as exemplifying what connection can mean in the Jewish Berkshires. It came when I was interviewing artist Stephanie Blumenthal, whose work we featured on the front page of our last issue. While asking her questions about her life, some of the details she recounted reminded me of those from an interview I had years ago with Nick Friedman, one of the co-founders of Theory Wellness, the cannabis dispensary in Great Barrington. I asked Stephanie if she is Nick’s mother.

“Yes, I certainly am Nick’s mother,” she replied. And as we talked, I thought back to my interview with Nick a few months before the recreational sale of cannabis began in Massachusetts in 2018. He struck me as an impressive person as he approached 30 and just then on the cusp of achieving something truly remarkable and transformative for the Berkshires – and if you read the June 12 article in the Berkshire Eagle about the local cannabis industry, you know how mind-bending his success with Theory has been, in every respect.

One of the perks of my job is that I get the chance to talk in depth with some of the very smart people in our community. When I spoke to Nick, he went on a tangent about how important it was to him to have a business partner in whom he had complete confidence, another person with qualities that he might lack, someone who can serve as the proverbial yin to his yang. There was something about the lack of ego with which he expressed himself that helped me understand how essential finding the right partner might be to a certain type of imaginative and ambitious person. Not being that particular type of person myself, it’s not a notion I could have necessarily arrived at on my own.

But I recognized that my son might be that type of person. So over the past few years, as my son matured, I’ve told him often and emphatically: “This is something I learned from a guy who is really smart and successful – find a partner you can work with, someone who can do things you can’t and who can use your strengths for your mutual benefit. I think this will be important to you down the line.”

As Stephanie and I wrapped up our interview, I shared that anecdote, telling her that though we didn’t know each other, she and I had a connection – some life wisdom voiced by her son has been making its way to my son’s ears. Might it mean something to my teenager down the line? Time will tell. All I know is that it felt satisfying to connect some more of the people in my Jewish Berkshires network.

By sharing stories in the Berkshire Jewish Voice, the Federation’s goal is to foster connections within our remarkable community, in part by making apparent the interconnectedness we already possess as Jews. As you will find out from the stories we publish, the Berkshires is a dynamic place to reside, raise a family, establish a career, enjoy retirement, paint your masterpiece, and live a fulfilling Jewish life. Federation is here to help with that last bit, and we ask you to support our work by becoming a voluntary subscriber to the Berkshire Jewish Voice.

Please see the insert in the current print edition newspaper or follow this link for the different funding levels available. An honorary publisher gift of $360 allows us to provide four pages of color. At the same time, all voluntary subscriptions help us defray the cost of printing – which has skyrocketed with inflation – and mailing the thousands of copies of the newspaper we send you nine times each year.

As the busy summer season crests, it’s clear that some semblance of post-pandemic normalcy is returning to our region. I expect a burst of energy from our community as we move forward and together reimagine what our community can accomplish together.