Religion & Jewish Life

Share and share alike: Boulder’s Jewish community at work

BOULDER, Colo. (JTA) — On a sunny Thursday in this city at the base of the Rocky Mountains foothills, 25 Jewish communal professionals have gathered for their monthly “Schmoozers” meeting at the JCC.

The fact that the powwow always takes place over lunch is unremarkable — when Jews get together, there is usually food involved. What stands out is the degree of communal cooperation: The meeting, participants say, allows representatives from all organizations to plan ahead together and pool limited resources, embodying the collaborative spirit that pervades Boulder’s Jewish community and which has allowed it to grow and innovate.

“There’s nothing like Schmoozers anywhere else,” said Amy Stein, the director of the Boulder chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, as she addressed the participants at what would be her last meeting. After four years in Colorado. Stein is moving to Boston to become the New England regional director of J Street. “I have never seen such spirit of cooperation.”

At Schmoozers meetings, representatives from the entire denominational and nonprofit spectrum each have a few minutes to speak about the goings on at their organizations, suggest ideas for collaboration and ask for resources and help when necessary.

When it came time for Hazon’s Becky O’Brien to speak, she announced that spring bike rides for teens were in the works. The only hitch? She doesn’t have any teens to put on the bicycles. “We don’t have great connections with teens,” she admitted, looking to those who typically work with the high school set to help her engage with that cohort. A couple of heads nodded round the table.  “Will you keep them until they’re 25?” someone joked back. It is the nonprofit equivalent of “ask and ye shall receive.”

The population of Boulder stands at approximately 100,000 according to the most recent census data — with 13,000 Jews, according to a 2007 study. The Jewish community is served by the statewide Jewish federation, boasts local chapters of several established national organizations and also benefits from an active Jewish Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder. In addition to these staples, the city boasts an innovative Jewish sector reflecting the ethos of the wider Boulder community.

For decades, since the arrival of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the city has served as the spiritual center of the Jewish Renewal movement. Jamie Korngold, aka The Adventure Rabbi, also calls Boulder home. Limmud has quarters in the region. And the city has become a major hub for the Jewish food movement, explaining why Hazon chose Colorado to open its first office between the coasts.

“[Hazon] could’ve picked any number of really organized, established places with significantly more Jews,” said Jonathan Lev, the executive director of the Boulder JCC. His institution, which until recently was housed in a series of interconnected trailers, has also pulled off a minor miracle in these lean economic times — raising more than $16 million for a spacious new complex that will serve as the centerpiece of the Jewish community in Boulder.

Lev credits the complementary spirits of innovation and cooperation for the community’s successful attempts at expansion. He spoke about Haver, which is a collaboration between Boulder’s rabbis — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal — who get together once a month to study. And he believes that the leadership has set the tone for the rest of the community.

He also believes that the relative youth of the leadership plays a role in Boulder’s success. “Over 50 percent of our board is under 45,” he said. Lev himself is representative of the youthfulness of the city’s leadership. At 33, he is the youngest JCC executive director in the country.

But that doesn’t mean that the building of Boulder’s Jewish community is the work of just one age cohort. “It’s a partnership between the generation that has been here for years and started the established organized community here, working in conjunction with the passion, dedication and even financial commitment of the next generation,” Lev said.

The blend of youth and experience was in evidence at the IgniteChanukah event that took place a week before the start of the holiday. Similar to Nerd Nite, Ignite events allow individuals to make Powerpoint presentations about any topic that interests them as long as they don’t exceed 20 slides and five minutes.

For the Jewish incarnation of this event, an all-ages sellout crowd schmoozed over alcohol and very premature potato latkes. The evening had several organizers and sponsors, among them Marisa Berlin, a bespectacled woman in her late 20s clad in footie pajamas and a menorah hat. The Bryn Mawr, Pa., native rolled up her sleeve to show off a gauze bandage, a souvenir from roller derby (currently her hobby, though eventually she hopes to make a living doing digital strategy for the sport).

Berlin was hardly the only person at Ignite with an unusual career goal. Unlike big-city gatherings where the careers are pretty easy to guess — doctor, lawyer, banker, consultant — the pursuits of the Boulderians vary more widely and in more entrepreneurial directions.

Joel Gratz, another organizer, is a meteorologist from Philadelphia, whose website, Open Snow, predicts snowfall for skiers, of which there are many in the region.

The topics being discussed during the Ignite presentations were as diverse as the careers of the attendees. O’Brien offered a vigorous defense of not being on Facebook. Another woman talked about using the Kabbalistic tree of life to launch a successful erotica business. And one man offered a detailed explanation of flash mobs.

Just as the Jewish residents seem to possess jobs that are labors of passion, not necessity, the very decision to live in Boulder seems to be dictated by desire. “No one comes here because they have to,” said Jennifer Goldman, who moved with her husband to Boulder from New York’s East Village a decade ago.

“Everyone in Boulder, for the most part, is a transplant

Jonathan Lev, left, is the youngest Jewish community Centr director in the country, part of a young cohort infusing energy into Boulder Jewish life. (Boulder Jewish News)

, coming from somewhere else,” Lev said. What he has observed anecdotally — that nearly everyone you meet hails from elsewhere — was demonstrated in the 2007 study of the Colorado Jewish community sponsored by the Rose Community Foundation. “More people moved to the area during the past ten years than were born here during that same period,” the study noted.

Many of these newcomers are driving the surge in the area’s Jewish life. For example, the annual Ignite event is the brainchild of Cheryl Fellows, who moved to Boulder in 1995. She also produces the annual Boulder Jewish Festival and, along with her husband David, runs the Boulder Jewish News website.

“People move here with that passion and excitement of living in a place like this,” Lev said. “And that translates into everything they do.”

And perhaps that’s the secret to Boulder’s success: No one lives there out of a sense of obligation, the way many move to large cities to find jobs or Jewish mates. It’s the love of the place itself — its gorgeous vistas, progressive and environmental values and nearly year round sunshine — draws people to Boulder. And if they want to create a viable Jewish community here, they have to work together.

Or maybe it’s the mountains, which tower over the town and, perhaps, dwarf the personalities and vanities of the institutions and individuals in the local Jewish community. “The mountains are always there,” Lev said.

It seems that in Boulder, you’ve got to check your ego at the Rockies’ door.