Imagine a small wooden synagogue in a small town, surrounded by woods, with a mountain looming behind it.
Imagine a community coming together for three days every year for many years, for decades, for a century.
This place isn’t magic; people age, generations change, children grow up and marry and have their own children. Many of them — most of them? — return, year after year, to the small wooden shul in the small town surrounded by woods, with the mountain looming behind it.
It sounds a bit like a children’s book — and people who know tell us that it looks a bit like Poland — but it’s real, and it’s in Hunter, New York, in the shadow of Hunter Mountain, the ski resort not too far north of New York City.
It’s the 104-year-old Hunter Synagogue, the shul built by the families that built Hunter Mountain, the magnet that attracts those family’s descendants and neighbors, and that holds services led by Rabbi Dr. John Krug of Teaneck and Rabbi Benzion Scheinfeld of Bergenfield.
They’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, and so they’re deeply woven into Hunter’s tradition.
According to a booklet the synagogue put out in 2014, lovingly and appropriately called “A Human History as told by its Congregants in Personal Recollections and Individual Impressions,” the community that built the shul formed in the 1880s. Then as now, many community members had summer houses in the rural exurbs, although various towns went in and out of fashion as tastes and travel changed. It was hard to get up to the Catskills then; in the 1880s, according to the booklet, families would take a boat up the Hudson and then get into a horse-drawn wagon that would get them to Hunter. Later, trains and then highways made the ride increasingly easier (if possibly less exciting.)
Since the 1950s, the shul, which the U.S. Interior Department lists on the National Register of Historic Places, was funded in large part by Orville and Israel Slutzky, brothers who also founded and until recently whose families owned Hunter Mountain, and who figure large in the reminiscences of the people who go there, year after year.
Since 1989, both Rabbi Krug and Rabbi Scheinfeld have led services there, three times a year, Rabbi Krug as senior and Rabbi Scheinfeld as junior rabbi. Both men taught at the Frisch School then when they were approached by community members, who asked them to drive up to Hunter and try it.
They did, they loved it, and they’ve done it every year since. They run the entire service; not only do they lead the davening, each acting as both rabbi and cantor — they both sing — but they also read the Torah and blow the shofar themselves. “We’ve gone for so long that when they built an annex, they named it the Krug-Scheinfeld annex,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said.
“It’s a unique community,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said. It’s a mountain community, a group of Jews who went there in the early 1900s. They were primarily religious families, but as America became less religious they also sort of evolved in all sorts of different directions. And their children and grandchildren come back to Hunter for the High Holy Days, from Manhattan, from Roslyn on Long Island, from Fair Lawn, from Monsey. A lot of them are Conservadox.” Few of them are Orthodox, but they return for Orthodox services, because that’s what the days always have meant to them. Many of them are artists, he added.
The High Holy Days fall at a different time every year, usually between early September and early October, but “every time we drive up to Hunter, we are surrounded by leaves that are changing color,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said; those changes in the physical world mark the change in feeling that he undergoes as he nears this place that means so much to him. “And then you pass a waterfall on the way up. The drive has a purifying effect as you get ready to connect with your creator, and with the purity of life.
“We always look forward to the landscape of green turning to fiery red and to yellow, and to the chill in the air, the pure smell. And this little old wooden shul. Even though the people there aren’t so religiously devotional, this is the center of their Jewish life. They will come from far and wide just to be in this synagogue, where their parents and grandparents prayed. And although they are not Orthodox, they want an Orthodox experience.”
There have been some concessions to the changing times, he added. “Until about 15 years ago, the men used to be downstairs and the women used to be upstairs. But then we put the mechitzah in the middle of the room downstairs. Rabbi Krug decided that he could accommodate that request. So it’s an Orthodox service, with a mechitzah, but we also helped people who wanted a more egalitarian feel.”
There’s also a mechitzah in the balcony, so that space is available both to men and to women.
There are a wide range of Jews who share the building. “During the summer, ultra-Orthodox students from Lakewood and their rosh yeshiva go there,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said. “And in the winter, there is a Reform service there every fourth Friday night. So everyone uses it. There is some tension, but on the whole it works out.”
The High Holy Day congregants are a mixed group religiously, but the two rabbis bring friends and relatives with them; Rabbi Krug’s wife, Phyllis, always joins them, and at times their children do as well. When the children were young, “the Krugs would bring them up every year,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said.
“Phyllis Krug is a very important part of the Hunter experience,” he added. The rabbis and their families and guests rent a house; “Phyllis opens her home to serve meals to everyone.” She also speaks movingly at Tashlich every year. “Tashlich is held by the creek in the back of the synagogue overlooking the mountain,” he said; that service, which always is held outside but rarely in as naturally beautiful a setting as Hunter provides, “is a very special gathering for all of the congregants,” he said.
“Most of the older people who used to be here are gone now, but I remember their Hebrew, and how much I loved hearing it,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said. It was the rich, deeply Ashkenazi Yiddish-inflected Hebrew that would take listeners back to Eastern Europe, even if they’d never been there. It went with the old wooden building, with its intimations of Poland. “And those old Jews were mountain men,” he added, with the creased, weathered faces of people who lived outside.
This magic community comes together three days a year — for the two days of Rosh Hashanah, and then again on Yom Kipppur. When it ends, the community has a break-fast, and then the two men play guitars and sing. Sometimes other musicians join them. (Remember that this congregation is full of artists; most are visual artists but some are musicians.) They sing Jewish songs, often old ones that everyone knows. Emotion runs high; the community has reached a peak of intensity together, fueled by emotion and music and reflection instead of by food and caffeine. Now it’s over, and the group will be disbanded for another year. “Inevitably people cry,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said. “The break-fast concert is a shot in the arm of Judaism.”
Because almost everyone who goes to Hunter for the holidays is a descendant of someone with history there, “We started as outsiders,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said. And because most of the congregation isn’t particularly observant during the rest of the year, they would necessarily associate synagogue-going with spirituality. “But Rabbi Krug and I create an intensity that rivals the intensity of any shul in the world. You’re in an old wooden shul in the middle of a mountain, and for three days everyone’s soul is so alive and focused and touched.”
“There’s an odd, cold, wintry warmth to praying in this old wooden shul. It’s an enveloping feeling of warmth.”
There’s also the Slutzky connection, which creates another bond between the people and the place.
“A lot of the Jews who come to the services are or have been skiers. The synagogue is figuratively and in some ways even practically dwarfed by this gorgeous ski mountain. The shul is there because the owners of the mountain gave the congregation both the means and the emotional connection, and at the heart of that connection is this synagogue.
“If there were no Hunter mountain, there would be no town of Hunter,” Rabbi Scheinfeld said. “And if no town, then no synagogue.
“To me, skiing is spiritual. That’s because of the beauty. When you see it, it’s like instead of looking at a painting, you’re inside it. You feel the energy and the grandeur of God’s creation. It’s a spiritual experience. And when you ski you challenge yourself. You feel nature, and you channel it into your own body.
“It makes you feel like you are connecting with Hashem’s world in a way that uplifts the soul.
“I love davening Mincha after skiing because I feel alive. It’s about feeling the beauty of the world.”