The Loon Lake Jewish Center, about two-thirds of the way between Plattsburgh and Saranac Lake, New York, is a log cabin, a former hunting lodge, consisting of one large square room that serves as the sanctuary; an adjoining back room with a refrigerator, sink, and table; and a small corner bathroom with toilet and sink. Until about 10 years ago, a moose head hung above the blocked-up fireplace in the main room, but a humorless caretaker had it removed as an offense to the spirit of the place.
At one end of the main room is a wooden ark holding a Torah scroll that is taken out during the service and unfurled for reading. The velvet Torah mantle, the breastplate that covers it, the curtain before the ark, and the cloth covering the large lectern on the bimah—the raised platform with the reading table on which the Torah is spread out—were all carved or embroidered by members of the congregation in honor of deceased relatives.
The Jewish Center is a summer congregation, its parishioners hot-weather vacationers, many of whom make a six-hour drive from New York or Toronto or a two-hour drive from Montreal. For the five decades of its existence, it has never failed to hold services at the prescribed times on Friday night, Saturday morning, and at the conclusion of Sabbath, following the Orthodox ritual and prayer book. There have been years when the president has canvassed the members to see whether there can be a minyan on the Sabbath before July 4, and occasionally enough members have stayed beyond Labor Day to allow for an additional Sabbath at the latter end of the season as well. But whenever the synagogue is opened each year, there can be no interruption of its routine. A traditional Jewish prayer quorum, or minyan, requires the presence of 10 men age 13 and older. This requirement has probably done more to guarantee the vital survival of Jewish communities than anything except the act of reproduction itself, and so it has proved for the Loon Lake synagogue: the need for a traditional minyan has kept it alive.
The synagogue is set up to accommodate a maximum of 70 persons. Six long benches traverse the width of the room with smaller benches along the two side walls. Men are seated in the front half, a long table dividing them from the women who are positioned similarly in back. This arrangement represents one of innumerable compromises without which the congregation could not have been founded, and without which it could not last. Very traditional visitors regret the absence of a genuine mehitsah—a partitioning curtain or wall to separate the men’s from the women’s section. For them the table hardly seems division enough. In contrast, members accustomed to Conservative or Reform synagogue practice, where mixed congregational seating is taken for granted and women are counted as members of the minyan, chafe at a physical arrangement they associate with second-class citizenship for women.
Mehitsah has probably been the most contentious issue in the Loon Lake congregation, as it has been generally in synagogue life since the 19th century, when the German Reform movement began to bring Jewish practice into closer approximation of the Christian norm. Probably for that very reason, those who came to be known as Orthodox insisted that separation of the sexes was crucial to maintaining the “sanctity of the synagogue.” But within Orthodoxy, too, opinions vary as to the need for an actual or merely symbolic partition, which means that perpetual negotiation sustains a shifting status quo.
Several years ago the president of the congregation, polling all the members in turn, came by to ask my help with a “delicate situation.” His very devout brother-in-law was paying a rare visit and would not pray in the synagogue that Sabbath unless some genuine mehitsah were erected. For this occasion only, the president was proposing to attach to the table a section of wooden latticework, which he would remove the following day. Was I prepared to go along with this plan?
Although my own preference happens to be for separate seating, at first I balked at the idea that someone could interfere with the established “custom of the place,” which had been arrived at only after much debate and, once interfered with, would surely open itself to challenge once again. In objecting to the visitor’s insistence on a stricter interpretation of the “letter of the law,” I was also thinking of how it might offend a member family that had already done its share of compromise from the other direction on the spectrum. One of the women in this family serves as cantor of a large Conservative congregation near Washington D.C.; at Loon Lake, only her husband, not she, is permitted to lead the services.
Yet when the president consulted her, she too ultimately accepted his proposal. I have always felt grateful to the family and to this woman in particular, whose cheerful spirit of participation allows us to experience the harmony of the Sabbath. She probably realizes, as do I, that without the imperatives of Orthodoxy, the congregation would have folded many years ago. For his part, the president promised us that, the week after his relative’s visit, he would consign the -latticework to a bonfire that the whole community would be invited to witness in assurance that this was a one-time exception.
his anomalous Jewish congregation is merely the latest incarnation of an earlier maverick institution in the same location. Our village of Loon Lake (one of several places so named in New York State) dates from 1878, when Ferdinand and Mary H.H. Chase opened a lodge on the shore of one of the loveliest bodies of water in the Adirondacks, determined to create the region’s finest resort. The spot they chose was not far from a station house on the direct route of the New York Central Railroad from New York to Montreal and a branch of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad line from New York to Lake Placid. Special railroad cars on this run were outfitted for wealthy travelers and their retinue of servants. Though the area was recommended for tubercular patients—President Benjamin Harrison’s consumptive wife stayed there for a time—the Chases had in mind a much grander concept than providing a service for people who wanted to convalesce among their own kind.
According to all reports, Mary Chase, who was known as The Mrs., was the driving force of this larger project from around the time of her husband’s death in 1917. At first the Chases had occupied a small house on a promontory overlooking the length of the lake; later they built on this spot a hotel with two annexes that could feed their many hundreds of guests. Elsewhere around the lake, they constructed cottages for those desiring a greater measure of privacy than a -hotel could provide, but the cottages were without kitchens, so all meals were taken on the American plan in the hotel’s dining rooms. The same held true for those guests who were permitted to build their own cottages on the property, with Mrs. Chase having right of first refusal if they decided to sell. The Mrs. was apparently as adept at business as she was at attracting an exclusive clientele.
In its heyday, the resort included an 18-hole golf course, stables, a gas station, a grand beach, tennis courts, boating facilities, and more than 4,000 acres of surrounding forestland. The cottage named “President” hosted, in addition to the Harrisons, Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Though the term exclusive generally implied that no Jews would have been welcome, it seems that the Chases were pleased to host Guggenheims, Lehmans, and Irving Berlin, along with the J.P. Morgans, the Vanderbilts, and Theodore Dreiser. Affordability was the democratizing standard of admission. A local resident who worked at the hotel for eight years in the 1920s was still starry-eyed many years later in recalling that “the magnificence of Loon Lake [Resort] can never be overstated. . . . There was a separate kitchen for soups and vegetables, another for meat, salad, sandwiches, and coffee, cereal, and baked goods.” Guests who wanted to circumvent the Prohibition laws managed to get their supply.
Traces of the old splendor were still much in view when I visited there for the first time in the summer of 1961, though signs of neglect were already noticeable in what had once been the public places. The tennis court was overgrown, the stables were collapsing, and the ruins of several burned-out buildings were happy hunting grounds for curious youngsters. But the history of the place was fresh in people’s minds. The peak years had been the 1920s, when the resort -accommodated almost 800 guests; the crash of 1929 was followed by the bankruptcy and death of its visionary owner. There followed a long period of receivership before the place was purchased in 1946 by the -Andron family, who opened Loon Lake as the only kosher hotel in the Adirondacks. Mrs. Chase’s separate kitchens were now divided according to the requirements of separating dairy from meat. The new clientele, from both sides of the Canadian border, gave rise to a number of matrimonial matches between religiously observant families from New York and Montreal.
Then, in September 1956, a fire destroyed Loon Lake Hotel and with it the resort that depended on its kitchens. A public auction was held the following year; most of the cottages were bought up by locals and -Orthodox Jews who had frequented the kosher hotel. Those properties that failed to sell at auction went to a real-estate consortium. It included a Jewish woman named Irene Miller who, though not religiously observant herself, proposed to the new Jewish owners that they chip in to buy a former hunting lodge for their common use as the Loon Lake Synagogue they had set up in makeshift premises. Taking up her suggestion, they opened the building in 1961, retrieving some prayer books and the reading table from the defunct hotel and bringing a Torah scroll from a synagogue in New York. Loon Lake had traded one model of “distinctiveness” for another.
he early problems facing the Loon Lake shul were the opposite of those that confront it today. According to their press release, the original founders were “a vacationing rabbi, a physician, and a select group of professional engineers, teachers, lawyers, and businessmen, all steeped in traditional observance, and well versed in theological teachings.” That some of these illustrious Jews were related to one another by birth or marriage strengthened their sense of community while also creating the potential for dynastic rivalries. For a functioning congregation, the presence of so many knowledgeable Jews was both a rare blessing and a source of perpetual friction.
At Sabbath morning services, the central event is the weekly reading from the Pentateuch and the haftarah, a section from one of the Prophets. The gabbai, the congregation’s lay leader,calls one man to “rise up” to the Torah (aliyah) for each of the seven passages into which the reading is divided, plus one more for the reading from the Prophets. Those called up are selected at the discretion of the gabbai, subject only to a strict criterion that is hierarchically controlled: the first aliyah is given to an individual who is a descendant of Kohanim, those from the tribe of Levi who formed the Temple priesthood in antiquity; the second to a Levite descended from those charged with certain ritual functions. The remaining six go to descendants of the other Israelite tribes.
The Loon Lake synagogue had a resident family of Kohanim, plenty of fluid Torah readers, and a cohort of boys of bar-mitzvah age who liked to take their turns leading the two other main parts of the service. This would seem to have provided honors enough to go around. Yet not all honors are felt to be alike. Prominent within their urban year-round congregations, these men were acutely aware of the subtleties of public recognition. At various points during the summer, moreover, people would be marking the forthcoming marriage of a child, the birth of a grandchild, the anniversary of the death of a parent or sibling, or some other rite of passage or exceptional event similarly requiring recognition. Meanwhile, there was competition among the women, who took turns providing food for the receptions following the Sabbath morning service. These mini-meals brought the community together in a wonderfully festive mood but also occasioned rivalries that became toxic when they dovetailed with the rivalries of husbands.
In sum, the same values that made Jewish observance so vital to the lives of these people not only heightened the prestige members ascribed to synagogue recognition but also inflated their sense of injury at any slight—to the point where even the wording and placement of plaques commemorating the dead or honoring the living became a matter of hot contention. “I’ve . . . come to the conclusion that I should resign from the Loon Lake Jewish Center,” reads a 1962 letter to the president after one such altercation. It ends: “Nevertheless, as befits the beautiful Jewish custom of forgiveness, I wish you and your family and all others in our Loon Lake group a happy and healthy New Year.”
In his guide to Jewish religion, the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs points out that the synagogue is not only where the Jew communes with God but also “a place wide open to the daily concerns of its members. A complete division between the sacred and the secular was never attempted.” This congruence between the secular and the sacred is exceptionally tight in the tiny Loon Lake community, where proprietary concerns spill over from one area to the other. Since the synagogue-attending Jews were the most organized group at Loon Lake in the period following the public auction, they formed the original nucleus of the Loon Lake Homeowners’ Association, arranging for such common tasks as garbage collection and cleaning the public beach. There was even a short-lived attempt to start a small day camp for the children. But far from generating greater harmony, this interaction provoked multiple disputes, including between siblings. The early years were marked by arguments that escalated into lawsuits over property markers and rights of way. A house we rented one summer had a decal over the window overlooking the next property that read “Loathe thy neighbor.”
But the intensity of those early years yielded to Time—the governing force of all congregations—which registered its toll at the beginning of every new season in the loss of some of those who had described themselves as “steeped in traditional observance, and well versed in theological teachings.” As the first generation of homeowners began slipping away, widows and children began to put their houses up for sale. The buyers were not necessarily Jews and, if Jews, not necessarily synagogue-goers. The day approached when there was no certainty that a minyan could be assembled. Unless some efforts were made to enlarge the pool of male congregants, the synagogue would cease to function.
From a sociological perspective, those unsteady years were the most interesting, forcing every Loon Lake Jewish family to define itself and to be defined by the others. There were services when only eight or nine men showed up. Delegations would then have to go looking or (as long as it was before the onset of Sabbath) phoning for the necessary bodies to make up the 10. Some infrequent attendees enjoyed “coming to the rescue” to fill out the prayer quorum; others took the occasion to emphasize their antagonism to religion in general and to this one in particular. Some irregular attendees like my husband began regulating their Loon Lake schedules according to the synagogue’s needs. Thus were the requirements of Judaism felt existentially and on an ongoing basis.
Finally, and although the formation of the Loon Lake Jewish Center was a collaborative effort, I should mention two individuals to whom it owes much for its continued existence. The first is Samuel Gewurz, the youngest son of one of the founding families, who undertook to recruit a new synagogue population when he saw the old one eroding. The only one of his siblings to continue frequenting Loon Lake, Sammy and his wife, Brenda, inherited an extra house from his parents and began renting it out selectively to regular synagogue-goers from their native Montreal. When they built a new home, they applied Mrs. Chase’s commercial principle to a religious purpose by selling their old one on the informal provision that the new owner attend services or else sell the house back to them. The Gewurz and other families hosted religiously observant friends from their home communities who were charmed by the place—and by the synagogue—and who bought local properties when they went up for sale or built new homes on the few empty lots. New members of the community quickly realized that they had become the guarantors of synagogue life, and several have assumed the responsibilities required to sustain it.
Similarly, although the Loon Lake congregation has never had an official rabbi, one of its mainstays has been Wilfred Shuchat, emeritus rabbi of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, who met his wife, Miriam, at the Androns’ hotel, bought a house at the auction, and has been vacationing at Loon Lake ever since. Some of the sweetest and most painful moments in the life of the shul are associated with this passionately modest man and his family. He was one of the stalwart readers from the Torah until impeded by a loss of sight, but to this day he continues teaching sections from the Mishnah’s Ethics of the Fathers toward the close of the Sabbath. When one of the daughters of the family died as a young wife and mother, the congregation named the house adjacent to the synagogue in her memory. The small-town quality of Loon Lake fosters an intimacy among synagogue members that extends through the rest of the year. Those who associate vacationing with shucking off communal interaction are not candidates for Loon Lake’s congregation.
he archives of the Saranac Lake Library treat Loon Lake as a place of fallen glory. A 1974 -essay typically observes that, despite rumors of impending developments, “except for a cottage colony, nothing outstanding has developed.” Indeed, no one driving in season past the few cottages on Route 26 and catching sight of the sign “Loon Lake Jewish Center” could imagine the glamour once associated with the place. The consortium that now owns most of the former Chase estate recently refused to renew the lease on the golf course, which is quickly becoming overgrown. A few brave souls who bought the smaller of the hotel annexes appear to have given up their plans for redevelopment. A tiny functioning inn on the property closed in 2008. A tall stone chimney in the woods, a pair of stone pillars at the entry to a driveway, and a few crumbling stairs of the grand descent to the lake are the only remaining markers of Mrs. Chase’s empire.
In some sense, the glory days of the Loon Lake synagogue are also past, as the generation of European-trained rabbis and learned Jews has died out, leaving humbler laymen to conduct the service. Yet when the Loon Lake Jewish Center celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008, it seemed to be gaining rather than losing strength. The otherwise regrettable demise of the golf course may have helped in this by discouraging the kinds of buyers who are primarily interested in the sport, and the otherwise lamentable lack of regional development that keeps prices from rising too steeply has also made it easier to recruit new families suited to the shul. Only by drawing in religiously compatible families one at a time has the synagogue avoided the fissures that a larger, more eclectic membership would create. An influx of Jews either more or less religiously observant would make it that much harder to maintain the delicate balance.
The experience of the Loon Lake Synagogue suggests that the freedoms of America provide unparalleled opportunity for new initiatives—but few safeguards against their failure. When the reign of Mrs. Chase was ended by the Depression, Loon Lake became a haven for observant Jews who could now reach it by automobile. They created an independent and self-sustaining congregation that managed to hold together people from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Ontario, and Quebec. Without defining their affiliation, they created a model of “modern Orthodoxy” that reflects the tensions inherent in the term.
Like America, traditional Judaism is based on the premise that freedom must be tamed by civilizing imperatives and that only adherence to such imperatives makes for genuine freedom. Certainly, only such adherence to imperatives has sustained this congregation, with the added proviso of a continual negotiation between tradition and adaptation, between the lenient and the strict. This maverick congregation may claim its own small place in local history as an example of tenacity, creativity, and freedom in the American grain—so long, that is, as it can manage, like America itself, to keep its balance.