Vermont is a New England state with an estimated Jewish population of 7,865. Vermont was the 14th State of the Union, admitted in 1791. Although there were no known Jews living in Vermont until after George Washington’s administration, there are documented instances prior to the American Revolution of Jews speculating in Vermont lands with no intention of settlement. The earliest known Jew to settle in Vermont was Joshua Vita Montefiore, a pamphleteer, and author of several books on commercial law, who was an indigent uncle of Sir Moses Montefiore. Settling in St. Albans, Vermont, in 1835, he continued to maintain some Jewish observances while raising his large family as Protestants. He died and was buried in St. Albans in 1845. After 1840, the large migration of German Jews to the United States seeped into northern Vermont where there were few towns that did not have at least one Jew or Jewish family.
Shortly after the Civil War, a Jewish community was established in Poultney, Vermont. As a thriving center of the slate industry, it had attracted Jewish merchants as well as transient peddlers seeking fellow Jews for minyanim (prayer quorums) and social opportunities. Poultney acquired Vermont’s first Jewish cemetery in 1873 and supported a house of worship and a shochet. The Jewish community survived until circa 1906 when its Jewish population relocated to Rutland and provided the seedbed for the Rutland Jewish community.
In 1880, a concentration of Jewish families appeared in Burlington, Vermont, the largest city in the state, then a lumber center on the east shore of Lake Champlain. Weekly services were held in Burlington in rented quarters until 1885, when Congregation Ohavi Zedek was formally established and shortly thereafter a synagogue built. Burlington’s rabbi was Israel Rosenberg, who accepted the pulpit in 1909 and served as community rabbi, filling the pulpit of Burlington’s three synagogues and building a Hebrew Free School. He left Burlington in 1911 to become the head of the Agudath Rabbonim in New York City. Vermont’s longest tenured rabbi was Max Wall who came to Ohavi Zedek directly from military service in 1946 and served until his retirement in 1987. Under Rabbi Wall’s guidance, the congregation evolved from largely Yiddish speaking to English speaking and built the synagogue building in which it is presently quartered.
Jewish communities in Vermont
Burlington remains the site of Vermont’s largest Jewish community (3,000) with the Conservative Ohavi Zadek the largest congregation closely followed by the Reform synagogue Temple Sinai. Burlington also boasts a highly visible Chabad movement. After 1905, Jewish congregations were organized in other communities. Although congregations in St. Albans and Newport no longer exist, Bennington, Brattleboro, Manchester, Rutland, Middlebury, St. Johnsbury, Stowe, Woodstock-Waitsfield, and Montpelier now boast organized Jewish communities. Other illustrations of an increased Jewish presence in the state include establishment of Jewish Lights, a publishing firm in Woodstock; a prominent Holocaust Studies program at the University of Vermont, which was the home for a generation of the preeminent scholar Raul Hilberg; and the Rabbi Max Wall Lecture Series at St. Michael’s College in Colchester.
From 1985 to 1991, Madeleine Kunin was the governor of Vermont, the first Jewish woman in the U.S. to hold such a position, and during the Clinton administration was ambassador to Switzerland during the dispute over Holocaust victim’s bank accounts, when much to her amazement she found that the list of account holders included her grandfather.
B. Postal and L. Kappman, Jewish Tourist’s Guide to the U.S. (1954), 615–9; L.M. Friedman, in: AJHSP, 40 (1950/51), 119–34; Myron Samuelson, The Story of the Jewish Community of Burlington Vermont (1976).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.