Vail, Colo., might seem like Siberia compared to the more established Jewish community of Los Angeles, yet here in Lionshead (elevation: 10,350 feet) there's some 75 Jews gathered for Shabbat morning services.
Under the burning morning sun, the clouds feel close enough to touch as we sit on wooden benches facing the stage, a "wedding chapel" on the precipice of a mountain. Aspen trees line the hillsides and, in the clear distance, peaks crowned with snow glisten, reminding us of Vail's other purpose.
As a relative newcomer to Southern California, I can find no rationale for leaving my beach community during the summer, but my internal travel bug is oblivious to reason and has sent me off to Colorado for outdoor adventures.
Yet, I am really only following in the tradition of the Jews, who have historically always been a nomadic people. Only in this last century have we seemed to settle down, and still, we are a more transient and traveling people than most. Perhaps it has to do with the comfort of readily available communities located in places as far as Siberia or as close as the Rockies.
B'nai Vail, a congregation of some 230 households, usually holds weekly services in the Vail Interfaith Chapel in the Valley, but in the summers they use the outdoors by praying at Gore Creek outside the chapel -- and twice each summer at Eagle's Nest on the mountain.
Its mission statement reads: "We are an active community committed to building a Jewish congregation that is welcoming to individuals and families of all backgrounds including full-time locals, part-time, summer and winter residents and visitors who are here for just a short time. The beautiful and splendid natural environment that surrounds us enhances our Jewish experience,"
Cantor Jennifer Werby welcomes the congregation, advising us to take in our surroundings and yet remain "present" for the services, to push away thoughts of the outside world and concentrate on the godly. It's hard not to. Even as a baby fox darts by with a mouse in its mouth, as mountain bikers and hikers stand on the side observing, the cantor's familiar opening Carlebach melody brings me back to dozens of similar services, from Los Angeles to the Upper West Side and Jerusalem.
During the Torah reading -- yes, on the top of the mountain, there's a Torah, not to mention wine and challah for "Kiddush" -- the cantor calls up various members of the congregation and, finally, all those who have not been called up. We stand close to the edge of the stage, closer to the sky than to the ground, recite the blessing and kiss the holy scroll.
I am visiting a girlfriend who has moved here to be with her boyfriend, whom she is hoping will eventually convert to Judaism. This is his first service, and I think it has inspired him; I have been to services all my life, and it has managed to move me, too.
In life, when we travel, we seek out the exotic, yet we also search for the familiar. The Jewish communities of Colorado are challenged by issues similar to those in other American communities: intermarriage, assimilation, disinterested youth, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The characters are even the same.
I was reminded of this when I visited my cousins in Denver, the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Charedi community, a growing group of some 100 families. I asked my cousin if he would be interested in meeting with the Conservative rabbi of a synagogue on the other side of town. My learned cousin stammered; he was busy, he might say hello in a social setting, he said. Finally, as I stood there, he admitted: "We don't have official meetings with them, because we Orthodox only believe there's one way -- the Orthodox way."
A meeting with non-Orthodox rabbis would imply that he believed the others were rabbis, he explained, citing the rabbi he followed who ruled against it. A gentle and intelligent man, my cousin brought to life for me the conflict in the book, "One People, Two Worlds," conversations between a Reform and an Orthodox rabbi who ultimately could not seem to find common ground.
The old Zionist pioneering song says, "Kum v'hithalech ba'aretz..." ("Get up and go travel around the country, with a backpack and a walking stick, and maybe on the way we will meet the Land of Israel").
Wherever our travel bug takes us to this summer -- whether it's Israel, Denver, Siberia or Spain -- we may be trying to escape, but what we might find, as I did in Colorado, is ourselves ... for better and for worse.