At Utah’s on-slope Shabbat service, ski boots required


It may be the most elevated Shabbat service in the country, and not just because of the spirited singing.

Held in a rustic cabin in the woods off a ski slope at Deer Valley resort, the service is situated at about 8,800 feet above sea level, and it’s the nation’s — and possibly the world’s — only ski-in, ski-out Kabbalat Shabbat minyan.

There’s no way to get there by car or foot; worshipers must buy a lift ticket to Deer Valley ($120), make their way over to the four-person Sterling Express chairlift, ride to the top of Bald Mountain (elev. 9,400) and then ski down to Sunset Cabin. Beginners beware: The steep trail leading to the cabin is designated intermediate blue.

There are a few other important things to know about what’s billed locally as “Ski Schule at Deer Valley.” It’s actually held before the Sabbath, at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoons. Come on time, because the service starts promptly and lasts about 35 minutes; the lifts close at 4 p.m. Dress is definitely casual: Attendees come clad head-to-toe in ski gear, and there’s a custom of clomping around in ski boots during the V’Shamru prayer.

And don’t worry: There will be Kiddush, though it’s a sweet Concord. If you’re hoping for whiskey, you’ll have to wait till après-ski down in the valley. It’s better that way anyway: Skiing while drunk is not recommended.

The ski shul is a longstanding tradition at Deer Valley, which is famous for its beautifully groomed runs, snowboard ban (one of only three such ski resorts in the United States) and pampered customer service. There is complimentary overnight ski storage, designated staffers to help visitors load their cars at day’s end and pillow-soft tissues at all 21 lifts. And though the resort is spread across five peaks and has 2,000 acres of skiable terrain, Deer Valley has ubiquitous green-uniformed mountain hosts on hand who can help direct you to the ski shul. Once you’re on the right trail, the cabin is easy to spot: There’s an Israeli flag tacked to the log cabin’s slope-facing wall.

Most of the service’s participants tend to be visitors, not regulars. Some are Deer Valley fans who come back year and a year (a few to vacation homes they own on the mountain), but many others are first-time visitors who learn about the worship service from notices posted around the mountain.

“Quite a few years ago I saw a sign on the bulletin board at the chair lift about the service. Being interested in Jewish life, I of course dragged my family and thought it was fantastic,” said Diane Krieger, a Miami resident who has been coming since the early 2000s, before she bought a vacation home in town. “I find it incredibly uplifting that Jews will choose, even at 8,000 feet, to gather together.”

The service is led by Rabbi David Levinsky, spiritual leader at Park City’s Temple Har Shalom. A relative newcomer to Utah (Levinsky moved here last summer), the rabbi needed some serious practice before taking over the service – making turns in the snow, that is, not reciting the prayers. Levinsky, 48, describes the lessons he took as a “crash course” in skiing – literally.

An Israeli flag is posted at Deer Valley's Sunset Cabin every Friday afternoon to alert skiers to the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service. (Uriel Heilman)An Israeli flag is posted at Deer Valley’s Sunset Cabin every Friday afternoon to alert skiers to the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service. 

“I had never skied till I came out here,” said Levinsky, whose favored sport is skateboarding. “I’m a Jewish kid from the suburbs. I wasn’t a big outdoors mountain guy.”

But seven months into his new job, Levinsky — who used to make a living as a rock musician, before getting Reform rabbinical ordination and then a doctorate in religion from Stanford University — says he has started to change. He skis two days a week now (usually for a couple of hours at a time, as many who live here do), and takes long walks with his dog in the foothills of the Wasatch mountain range.

For a rabbi in Park City, (elev. 7,000 feet), mountain activity is practically required.

“One of the goals of Har Shalom is to find interesting ways to blend mountain living with Judaism, and ski shul is one of the ways to do it,” Levinsky said. “The temple is nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch range. Sometimes we take our Judaism up the mountain.”

The Friday afternoon minyan at Sunset Cabin is, for the most part, like many liberal Kabbalat Shabbat services. It’s participatory, held in the round (or the scrum, when it’s crowded), and worshipers use customized laminated prayer booklets. The rabbi’s d’var Torah sermon usually runs about two to three minutes.

The rabbi who leads the weekly Jewish prayer service at Deer Valley ski resort sometimes alters the traditional prayer for rain to a prayer for snow. (Uriel Heilman)The rabbi who leads the weekly Jewish prayer service at Deer Valley ski resort sometimes alters the traditional prayer for rain to a prayer for snow.

On a recent Friday, the rabbi altered the traditional line in the Amidah prayer for “wind and rain” to a petition for “wind and snow.” At the conclusion of the service, which drew about 30 people, skiers wished each other “Shabbat Shalom” and headed back outside, into what suddenly had turned into a serious snowstorm (prayer answered).

Levinsky was in a rush – it was the closing weekend of Park City’s Sundance Film Festival, and the service was the first of three he would be leading that day – but most of the worshipers took their time pulling on their goggles and strapping on their skis.

One woman stepped off the cabin’s wooden platform and immediately sank into snow up to her calf — a reminder that in Utah the snow tends to fall in feet, not inches.

A moment later she had her skis on and was ready to go. “Shabbat shalom!” she called out, and disappeared down the mountain.

Ted Cruz, as in lose


What's playing out in Washington this week is a classic example of that old political shibboleth, “that may be what I said but that's not what I meant.” Republicans are piously assuring us they have no desire to shut down the government only to go marching off toward the cliff.  Then they have the chutzpah to claim it is all Barack Obama's fault because he refuses to pay the ransom they're demanding on the hostage their holding, namely the operating budget for the federal government, and the ransom is his agreement to defund the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislation of his presidency..

Along the way a civil war has broken out on multiple fronts among Congressional Republicans.  It's House vs. Senate and establishment Republicans vs. tea party zealots.

The battle, reflecting the rise of a GOP faction even more extreme than the evangelical right, is one more reason Republican claims to a bigger share of the Jewish vote are pure myth.  It's wackos like Cruz who will keep Jewish voters firmly in the Democratic fold for many elections to come.

To a large extent this internecine warfare pits veterans against more extreme recent arrivals on Capitol Hill who are convinced they were sent to Washington on a holy crusade to reshape government and that compromise is tantamount to treason.  This is as much if not more responsible for the gridlock gripping Washington as the rivalry between Republicans and Democrats.

More than anyone else, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is the driving force behind the standoff that has tied defunding of Obamacare to passing a budget to keep the government operating when the new fiscal year begins October 1.  A majority of Republicans in both chambers say they don't want to shut the government down, so why are so many marching to the cliff like lemmings?

They don't want to get “Cruzed,” to be attacked from their right by even more conservative primary challengers accusing them of insufficient ideological purity as happened over the past two election cycles.  In some instances, like Texas (Cruz), Utah (Mike Lee) and Kentucky (Rand Paul), the tea party favorite made it to the Senate, but in several others, like Delaware, Nevada, Missouri and Indiana, some loonies won the primaries but lost elections the GOP could have won.

Cruz has been the driving force in this confrontation, goading House Republican leaders to go along with a vocal but strident minority in their caucus to tie ACA funding to keeping the government open.  The House passed that bill, largely along partisan lines, and sent it to the Senate, where Cruz had promised to do everything in his power to pass it.

But as soon as it arrived he ran up the white flag, saying he didn't have the votes and urged a filibuster, but said killing ACA was really up to the House.  The hot air was taken out of that wind bag when the top Senate GOP leadership, Mitch McConnell (KY) and John Cornyn (TX) announced Monday they'd vote for cloture to shut down Cruz's threatened filibuster.

Both leaders are worried about being Cruzed in their own primaries next year, but they also are cncerned about the damage a government shutdown would do to the GOP.

When colleagues said they didn't want another government shutdown, Cruz kept telling them Obama might blink and back down, abandoning his signature achievement. Besides, he said, the last time Republicans shut down the government, in 1995-96, it was successful.  I don't know what Cruz has been smoking but had he been around 20 years ago instead of just the past nine months he'd know his party can't afford more victories like that.  Just ask ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich what it did for his political career and for House Republicans.

Cruz, whose idea of party unity is everyone should fall in step behind him, had earlier said any vote for cloture “is a vote for Obamacare” and Republicans who support passage of a bill to fund the government and not to defund ACA are cowards.

That brought a swift reply from angry House Republicans, already seething at Cruz for starting a fight he walked away from.

Cruz is the “real coward,” said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY); Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called him a fraud. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) called him a bully who “refused to fight” but instead “wave(d) the white flag… Thank God he wasn't there fighting at the Alamo.”

King said the best thing Cruz could do is shut up, and the best outcome of this episode would be an end to Cruz's influence and his ability to set the Republican agenda.

The damage Cruz has done to his relations with his Republican colleagues won't go away soon.  Chris Wallace of Fox News said that when Cruz had been booked for his Sunday talk show Republican lawmakers and staffers called to urge him to “hammer” Cruz. 

Republican critics say Cruz's loyalty is to Cruz, not the party, and his actions may advance the Cruz brand but they damage the GOP brand. He has been in the Senate since January but his focus has been on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Tilting at extremist windmills doesn't produce legislative accomplishment but it can increase his name recognition, solidify his base, raise big bucks and give him scapegoats to blame for his failures.  Cruz is not a “follow me” leader but a “go get 'em” guy shouting from the rear.

Once the short-term funding bill (CR) passes, House tea partiers will begin focusing on their 42d vain vote to kill, cripple or maim Obamacare next month on legislation to raise the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling. After that it will be linked to renewing the CR that expires on December 15.  Those and successive attempts  to kill ACA will also fail so long as a Democrat is in the White House.

So why bother?  Because it plays well with diehard conservatives and the big money boys on the far right.  And isn't that what it's all about?

For Matisyahu, no beard, no entry


Since Matisyahu shaved his beard last year, the former Chasidic reggae musician has been suffering all sorts of blowback. Along with losing his facial hair, sidelocks and the love of some Jewish fans, apparently he’s lost his VIP status in the eyes of club bouncers, too.

At the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, over the weekend, Matisyahu stood outside the TAO nightclub for some 10 minutes unable to get in because the door managers had no idea who he was, according to the New York Post. He finally gained access to the club from a friend who recognized him. Had he shown up in the black hat and coat, and straggly white beard he once wore, the bouncers surely would have dug his outfit and ushered him in.

Opinion: Exorcising Orrin Hatch


It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Because Sen. Orrin Hatch couldn’t eke out 60 percent of the votes at the Utah Republican Party’s convention this past weekend, he’ll face a primary challenge from former state senator Dan Liljenquist. 

With the help of Tea Party piggy banks like FreedomWorks, Liljenquist has assailed Hatch as a conservative in name only.  Hatch counters that his seniority – he’s been in the Senate since 1976 – will put him in line to chair the Finance Committee if the GOP takes the upper chamber in November, but Liljenquist has flipped that into a liability: Hatch has been a Washington insider too long.  Going into the convention, Hatch held a big lead over Liljenquist in statewide polls, but millions of dollars of anonymously funded attack ads could well make Hatch sweat bullets.

Which would be sweet, because Hatch, along with former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, has held a special place in my heart ever since the 1991 hearings on Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination.  Then as now, it’s impossible to be neutral on Professor Anita Hill’s allegations against Thomas.  Either you believe that Hill was lying about being sexually harassed by Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that the Judiciary Committee hearings were, as Thomas memorably called them, a “high tech lynch mob”; or you believe that Thomas perjured himself, and that the Republican senators impugning Hill’s integrity were – well, disgusting jackals doesn’t seem too unforgiving.

Though a Mormon bishop, Hatch looked to me more like a judge at a Puritan witch trial.  “With his stiff neck and high collars,” ” target=”_hplink”>the second day of the hearings.  Hatch quoted Hill’s testimony to Thomas:  “One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a coke in his office.  He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, ‘Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?’”

“Did you ever say that?” Hatch asked Thomas.

“No, absolutely not.” 

Then, to an explosion of clicking shutters, Hatch held up a copy of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist.

“Ever read this book?”

“No, Senator.” 

“Ever see the movie?”

“I have seen only the scene with the bed flapping.”

In what may be the most whacked accusation of plagiarism ever hurled, Hatch then charged Hill with cribbing her claim from the 20 year-old book. “‘Oh, Burk,’ sighed Sharon,” Hatch began reading.  “In a guarded tone, she described an encounter between the Senator and the director.  Dennings had remarked to him, in passing, said Sharon, that there appeared to be ‘an alien pubic hair floating around in my gin.’”

Amazing staff work—and this was before Google!  On the other hand, as ” target=”_hplink”>Marcus noted that Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher, in their book, Supreme Discomfort, found that “some of the behavior Hill complained about resonated with episodes from Thomas’s past. “Hill described an episode in which Thomas, drinking a soda, asked, ‘Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?’ James Millet, a college classmate of Thomas’s, recalled ‘an almost identical episode’ at Holy Cross. ‘Pubic hair was one of the things he talked about,’ another classmate said. Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, in Strange Justice, found two others who recalled a pubic hair-Coke can comment at the EEOC.”

Yes, I know that Orrin Hatch collaborated with Ted Kennedy on bills like the Orphan Drug Act, and that he ordered an investigation of potential Republican Judiciary Committee staff misconduct (Democratic files on judicial nomination strategy had been hacked and leaked).  But since George W. Bush’s second term, Hatch has been ” target=”_hplink”>he said.  “I know this more intimately than almost anybody.  And I can tell you that Clarence Thomas was telling the truth.  I think this has probably grated on Ginni all these years.  And I think she was probably hoping that maybe Anita Hill would admit that what she said was wrong.” 

Virginia Thomas ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Utah’s Lee tours Israel


Mike Lee, Utah’s senator-elect and among the most prominent of Tea Party conservatives, met in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lee, who ousted moderate Republicans in primaries in the recent election, toured Israel last week under the auspices of the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups are reaching out to such conservatives in a bid to persuade them not to cut foreign aid. The Tea Party insurgency helped the Republicans sweep the U.S. House of Representatives and cut into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate by promising cuts in government spending.

Finding Judaism in the great outdoors


BERKELEY(JTA)—There were about two dozen people on Rabbi Mike Comins’ Torah Trek in Tilden Park here.

Most members and friends of Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish Renewal-style community, had hiked a lot. Many had prayed or meditated. Some had done both together.

But none, the hikers were to learn, had done it quite this Jewishly.

Comins, a compact man with sandy hair, suddenly took off down the trail at a rapid pace. The hikers set off behind him, chattering happily on this sunny Shabbat morning. They walked for five minutes, their conversations growing louder. But oddly, Comins said nothing.

Then he stopped. When the hikers caught up to him, Comins told them to walk for another five minutes, this time in complete silence.

What a simple exercise, but how powerful the impact. It’s amazing what one hears as the mind quiets down. The rustling of a tree branch. The crunch of a foot as it meets the earth. The pounding of one’s heart.

For Comins, that small, still space is where God can be encountered. And that’s where he and a handful of other Jewish spiritual leaders are trying to take those willing to follow, even for a few hours: into the wilderness, back where Judaism began and into themselves at the same time.

Comins, 51, now based in Los Angeles, does it by walking. He leads groups on Jewish spiritual hikes via Torah Trek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures, the company he founded in 2001.

His Reform colleague Rabbi Jamie Korngold, 42, in Boulder, Colo., created her Adventure Rabbi program that same year. She leads those hiking, skiing and biking their way back to Judaism.

Both rabbis have published books to help others do it on their own.

Comins’ book, “A Wild Faith,” came out last fall; Korngold’s “God in the Wilderness” appeared in April. The books, filled with biblical wisdom and practical exercises, are small enough to fit in a back pocket—while one is hiking, for example.

Their messages come across so well because they developed their rabbinates to answer their own needs.

Comins, ordained in 1996 by Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, was leading spiritual treks in Israel’s deserts but felt his own Judaism had become sterile.

“I’d become a spiritual wannabe,” he says. “I was taking people into the desert, but we did the same things we’d do in the city—we’d take out the text and study, we’d take out the siddur and daven.”

He moved back to Los Angeles, took a two-year spiritual sabbatical and developed what he describes as a personal relationship with God.

Just saying those words makes him chuckle. No, he’s not enamored of New Age thinking. It took him a while to convince himself that what he was experiencing was real and worth passing on.

Korngold, a skier, mountain climber and ultra-marathoner, says she was languishing in Calgary, Canada, after her 1999 ordination. Then she took a group of students to the Grand Canyon for a baby-naming ceremony for a daughter of one of the students. On the trip she realized her real gift lay in bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated through the sports she loved.

Comins’ walks are aimed at spiritual seekers. Some of his participants are disaffected Jews who like to hike. Others are Jewishly involved but want to deepen their spirituality by exploring the wilderness.

What makes his walks Jewish is not the encounter with nature—- that, he says, has a power beyond cultural context—but how he guides his groups to respond by saying Jewish blessings and reflecting on the teachings of rabbis who loved the outdoors, such as Nachman of Bratslav and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“In the wilderness, it’s hard not to experience awe,” he says. “And as Heschel explained, the gateway to God is awe.”

Zann Jacobrown on a trek last fall near Seattle recalls Comins leading the group in the shacharit, the traditional morning prayer, then asking them to walk around and come back with their own morning prayers related to what they found.

Jacobrown brought that exercise and several others from the Torah Trek back to the religious school where she teaches, taking the children on a spiritual day at a nearby river. She says it was a big hit.

Thousands have taken part in Torah Treks and Korngold’s outdoor adventures. The rabbis receive calls from rabbinic students and leaders of Jewish organizations eager to learn how to become wilderness spiritual leaders. More than 1,000 people are registered on Korngold’s social network site.

Korngold’s adventures are more consciously aimed at outreach to young Jews who are marginally, if at all, involved in Jewish life. She runs holiday retreats in deserts and campgrounds, and in winter leads Shabbat services on top of a mountain with worshipers skiing down afterward.

“My dad goes to shul every single week, but my peers, if they have to choose between going skiing or going to synagogue, they’ll choose skiing every time,” says Korngold. “So I say, I’ll go with you, and we’ll make this a holy day and a Jewish day.”

Most of her participants are aged 25 to 45.

“We’re really hitting that demographic everyone’s trying to reach, and for 85 percent of them, this is the only Jewish thing they do,” Korngold says.

Boulder resident Rosalie Sheffield went on Korngold’s Passover retreat in April in a desert in Utah. She describes hiking to the top of a stone arch and standing with more than 50 others in a line, their hands on a Torah scroll stretched before them.

“That moment was so spiritual, looking down at the Torah, then up at the arch, seeing all those Jews standing together,” she says. “I think it’s perfectly fine and appropriate to find a connection to God outside the synagogue walls.”

Environmental Spirituality


If you are looking for a place where you are just as likely to go ocean kayaking and rock climbing as you are to daven Shacharit (morning prayers) and learn brachot (blessings), then the Shalom Nature Center (SNC) is probably the place for you.

Since its inception in 1998, SNC has been introducing Jewish students across the United States to a part of their religion they didn’t even know existed: environmental spirituality.

The center is part of the Shalom Institute, an umbrella organization in Malibu that encompasses other Jewish environmental programs, such as Camp JCA Shalom and the Shalom Adventure Center. In 2000, the center received a $552,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to launch the College Campus Initiative.

The aim of the initiative is to engage unaffiliated college students in Jewish life through programs that meet their interests, such as social action and environmentalism. To that end, SNC has been creating a variety of on-campus programs and off-campus adventure trips. The trips run the gamut from natural beauty nights, during which students make their own lip balm, to white-water rafting in Utah.

“Our goal is to take Jews out in nature and to enable them to have these transforming experiences.” said Josh Lake, 30, SNC’s director. “It appeals to people, because many people can’t grasp a lot of concepts in the Torah, but they can absorb nature.

“Judaism relies tremendously on a natural environment, and the Torah describes how people can live in a natural setting. The outdoors is a phenomenal venue for education, because that is where life takes place, outdoors, under the sky,” he said.

On the adventure trips, students learn, among other things, how to erect tents, make matchless fires, find medicinal plants, canoe and climb rocks. They are briefed on environmental matters such as the water cycle and the food chain, but SNC applies a Jewish sensibility to everything that is taught.

“These are fun experiences,” Lake said, “but with a bit of a debrief, people can understand that this is God’s world, and by having these fun activities, you are experiencing God’s creation that is talked about in ‘Bereshit’ [Genesis].”

Tally Wolf, 23, SNC program director, said the center’s programs attract students from all denominations of Judaism and from all cultural sects, be it Persian, Russian, Israeli or American.

“We really have a unique niche, because no one else is providing Jewish nature activities for college students in this way,” he said. “We provide them with a spiritual experience in the outdoors, and a lot of the kids who have come on our programs have gone on to become environmental educators, and they come back to work with us.”

Wolf said that many of the students do not make time in their lives for these types of activities. “It’s hard to show them that this is an investment; that to free yourself from the city and enrich your soul is better than simply cramming things into your mind. It is hard to compete with the other things that are going on in their lives.”

The center provides an advisory service that assists Jewish organizations in the United States to plan camping and adventure trips. It also operates the Shalom Tevah program, a camping project that caters to grade-school students.

Michelle Rothstein, an 11-year-old student at the Pressman Academy, recently participated in a five-day program at the center, during which she went on a five-mile hike and learned to how to make campfires.

“It was really cool to learn how all this nature and stuff could connect to our religion,” she said. “It helped us bond better.”

Accidental Death in Utah


Orel in Hebrew means God’s light. Orel Gigi was only 4 1/2 years old when she died in a car accident on Aug. 2, but to her parents and all who knew her, she was like her name — a ray of divine light. “Her smile and outstretched arm towards anybody was magic, and a heart could not but surrender,” wrote family friend David Meiron in a eulogy he delivered at Orel’s funeral.

Orel was killed at the start of what was to be the happiest week of her young life. She was traveling to Utah with her father, Nahum Sagi, and dog Ginger. Nahum and his wife, Anat, both Israeli-born, had experienced financial problems, and Nahum had found a construction job in Utah, traveling home to Los Angeles on weekends to be with his wife and daughter. Orel was excited about spending a week with her father in Utah.

Aug. 2 was hot, and the car didn’t have air conditioning. Nahum stopped to rest for two hours after they passed Las Vegas. Just 60 miles from their destination, he fell asleep at the wheel, and the car veered off the road and down a ravine. Orel, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt was thrown through an open window and killed instantly. Nahum sustained a broken hand and minor bruises. The dog jumped from the car and ran away.

Anat at first refused to believe what had happened. Orel had called her from the road and told her “Ima, I love you from the bottom of my heart.” It didn’t seem possible that she was gone so suddenly.

Seven weeks later, the family is still in deep mourning for Orel. “She was the best friend of my 5-year-old son, Eliran,” said Anat’s sister, Galit Ambar. “He misses her so much.”

Orel is buried in the Jewish cemetery, Shalom, in Sylmar. Without the help of Rabbi Amitay Yemini of Chabad of Los Angeles, who volunteered his services and handled funeral arrangements, the family says it couldn’t have managed. But they are still deeply in debt. At the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin made his first appeal ever for aid for a family from the pulpit, said family friend David Meiron, who, like Anat, is a Hebrew school teacher at the temple. Meiron has helped set up a fund to aid the family. Donations can be sent to Anat Gigi, 22100 Burbank Blvd. ‘323, Woodland Hills, CA 91367.

The Meaning of Religious Freedom in Utah


Much of the school was outraged. All spring, Bauchman was subjected to ridicule and abuse from students — and, allegedly, from the music teacher. Graduation day became an impromptu anti-Bauchman protest. Parents and students joined hands to sing the forbidden song and shouted abuse at the principal when he tried to stop them. The salutatorian, another Jewish student, was hooted off the stage in tears.

The Meaning of Religious Freedom in Utah

If you’re like me, you probably read news reports about religious freedom the way you read the latest news on global warming: plowing dutifully through, eyes half-glazed over, certain it concerns you but not quite sure how.

If so, there’s one case you should watch for in the coming weeks. Early this month, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide whether to hear an appeal in a case from Utah. It has the Jews there tied up in knots.

From a constitutional point of view, the Utah case is piddling stuff, especially after a month like we’ve just had. This was the month that Wisconsin’s top court cleared the way for our nation’s first legal parochial school aid program. Just days earlier, a school-prayer amendment won a majority in the House of Representatives, though not the two-thirds required to doctor the Constitution. In Idaho, a federal appeals court upheld a high-school graduation ceremony that lets students lead their fellows in prayer. On every front, America’s basic understanding of the First Amendment seems up for grabs this summer, more than it’s been in decades.

The Utah case, by contrast, will turn on a technicality. The justices are being asked to rule on a question of courtroom procedure. And, yet, the story is worth recounting. It reminds us why those other cases matter.

The case involves Rachel Bauchman, a young Jew from Salt Lake City who once hoped to major in music. Entering her sophomore year at West High School in 1994, she found that the choir class, required of music majors, seemed to specialize in Christian devotional music. She protested, but nobody listened. Then she got a court order, barring a particularly pointed Christian anthem that was to be performed at the school’s 1995 graduation ceremony.

Much of the school was outraged. All spring, Bauchman was subjected to ridicule and abuse from students — and, allegedly, from the music teacher. Graduation day became an impromptu anti-Bauchman protest. Parents and students joined hands to sing the forbidden song and shouted abuse at the principal when he tried to stop them. The salutatorian, another Jewish student, was hooted off the stage in tears.

The ugliness won national headlines. Afterward, though, nothing happened. Bauchman asked the court to take action, but the judge ruled that the school had done its part when it banned the song. The rest, it seems, was just private unpleasantness.

That fall, Bauchman transferred to a private school. She still couldn’t major in music, since the state required her to go through the same music teacher. Over the next two years, her attorneys gathered evidence that the 1995 graduation dispute was part of a pattern of religious intolerance fostered by the music teacher. The court ruled the new evidence inadmissible. Bauchman took it to federal appeals court and lost.

Last April, as a college freshman in Washington, Bauchman appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are expected to decide this month whether to hear her appeal. If they do, then next year, they will decide whether she can go back to Utah and take on the music teacher again.

You might think Jews in Salt Lake City are raring to go at it again. You’d be wrong. Bauchman’s protest split the community down the middle.

“Most of the synagogue was against it,” says Sherry Rosenblatt, whose daughter, Erin, was in choir with Bauchman. “They wanted to keep it quiet. They didn’t want us to make a big stink.”

The reasons aren’t hard to guess. Jews in Salt Lake City number only 3,500 or so in a city of 160,000. Their neighbors are mostly Mormons, who see Utah somewhat the way Jews see Israel: theirs. Religious minorities try not to get in the middle of it.

“We do the church-state thing in Salt Lake City every day when we wake up,” says Nano Podolsky, past president of the local Jewish federation. Her daughter, Laura, was in West High’s 1995 graduating class.

Relations between Jews and Mormons, curiously, are traditionally excellent. That’s partly because Mormons consider themselves part of the Ten Lost Tribes, making Jews their “brothers.” “Basically, the Jews in this state work very well with the Mormon community and the Mormon church,” says Roberta Grunauer, who was executive director of the city’s Jewish Federation in 1995.

The Bauchman case disrupted all that. How badly depends on your perspective. To Grunauer, the case is “ancient history.” She believes that the community would have been better off without it.

Others hope that Rachel comes back for Round 2. “I say the bigger stink, the better, so people are aware of it, for God’s sake,” says Sherry Rosenblatt.

For the rest of us, there’s a lesson in Salt Lake City, but it’s not a simple one. We like to think we’ve come a long way in America. It was scant decades ago that the Lord’s Prayer was standard fare in America’s classrooms. Today, we take it for granted that Jews and Judaism stand on an equal footing with every other religion. The big debates now are over how to protect that equality — whether to stand firm on strict church-state separation, or bend a bit when other needs arise.

What happened in Salt Lake City reminds us that many Americans haven’t gotten there yet, and don’t want to. Much of America between the coasts is a patchwork of monochromatic communities that take majority rule very seriously, and expect minorities to adapt.

For small Jewish communities from Utah to Alabama, the question isn’t how to defend equality but how to achieve it. The Bauchman case is a reminder that achieving equality isn’t a simple matter of demanding your rights. It also involves convincing the majority to grant those rights.

Did Rachel Bauchman’s fight improve things in Salt Lake City? Maybe. “We received no commencement complaints this year from local school districts,” says Rabbi Frederick Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami, the towns’ main synagogue. “That means either the school districts have learned something, or there aren’t any Jewish kids as gutsy as Rachel.”

Some families aren’t betting on change. Of Nano Podolsky’s three children, two are unlikely to.