The Early Years
Today, the JCA has more than 300 member households made up of families, couples and individuals. A vibrant Jewish community in Amherst would have been hard to imagine for the first Jewish residents who arrived in Amherst in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, a small group had formed the Amherst Jewish Community to promote social and cultural events. In 1966, the Amherst Jewish Education Committee was established and initiated a Sunday and Hebrew school for the youngest members of the community. The two groups merged in 1969 to create the Jewish Community of Amherst, Inc. (JCA).
The new community met in many different local facilities until 1976 when members took the bold step of purchasing the sanctuary and parish hall of the Second Congregational Church at 742 Main Street, the JCA’s home ever since. Three years later, the JCA purchased and consecrated land in Shutesbury for our cemetery.
A second bold step was taken in 2001, when members contributed and borrowed funds to accommodate the JCA’s present and future growth. The result was a major designed addition to the old church buildings that included a new social hall, commercial quality kitchen, small sanctuary, main offices and a foyer. Despite extensive renovation, the historic integrity of the old church buildings was preserved.
Further information about the early years of the JCA may be found in The Jewish Community of Amherst: The Formative Years, 1969-1979 by Irving Seidman, available for purchase in the JCA Judaica Store with proceeds from sales of the book benefitting the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.
Our Historic Building
The white, steepled building facing Main Street was built in 1837 for the Second Congregational Church of Amherst. The founders of this Second Parish were supporters of the American Revolution who resigned in 1783 from the First Congregational Church in the center of Amherst because of the minister’s Tory sentiments.
The members of the Second Parish built their first meetinghouse where the Fort River School now stands. By 1837 they had constructed the Greek Revival-style meetinghouse, now known as the JCA sanctuary, designed by noted Amherst architect, Warren Howland. The steeple is surmounted by his signature Acorn representing Vigor and Strength. Our beautiful sanctuary has the pipes for a functioning historic Emmons Howard tracker organ, a decorated tin ceiling, and lovely stained glass windows that date from an 1894 remodeling.
Next to the sanctuary, the original Parish Hall of 1859, styled after the main building, served the JCA until 2001 as social hall, kitchen, classrooms and offices. Since the 2001 renovation, the once-Parish Hall retains much of its original design, the main room now serving as a meeting and study space housing the JCA’s small library.
In the summer of 2017, the JCA membership voted to accept a major grant from the Town of Amherst, recommended by the Community Preservation Act Committee, for a complete restoration and straightening of the steeple, rather than its removal, thus honoring the commitment of the founders of the JCA to maintain the visible exterior and integrity of the building in a manner that reflects its history and its importance as part of the East Village Historical District.
Rabbinic and Lay Leadership
Throughout its history, the JCA has been blessed with dedicated and skilled lay and rabbinical leaders. In the early years, services were led by lay members of the community and guest rabbis, a practice that continues to enrich and sustain us for many of our daily, Shabbat and holiday services. Some member leaders are rabbis themselves or have studied service leadership.
Rabbi Yechiael Lander, while serving as rabbi at Smith College and Amherst College, generously guided our community through its early growing period in a part-time capacity, and was honored with the title of Rabbi Emeritus of the JCA. As our numbers grew and our identity as a congregation took form, a search for full-time rabbinical leadership became our focus.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, already a nationally known figure in the Reconstructionist movement, served as our first full time spiritual leader 1989-2002, a period of major growth for our congregation, the reinforcement of gender equity at the JCA, and the addition of weekly Shabbat morning services with the ongoing services on Friday evenings.
Rabbi David Dunn Bauer served the JCA from 2003 through June 2010. During his tenure our youth program grew significantly, a Fair Share Dues program was adopted, and High Holiday services were creatively reorganized to fit into our buildings with both Reconstructionist and Masorti style services.
Rabbi Benjamin Weiner became spiritual leader of the JCA in August of 2010. In his first years as our rabbi, he initiated high quality musical davening into our services, attracting experienced musicians to join him and with extensive participation by the congregation; brought new energy and creativity to youth and family education and support of adult study programs; and guided and encouraged the JCA’s response to tikkun olam and social justice in our complex world.
In 2002, the JCA affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (at that time named the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation) after 30 years as an unaffiliated congregation. This affiliation matched the JCA well with its diversity of Jewish practice and belief, respect for traditional Jewish worship, study and culture, and emphasis on tikkun olam – improving the world and ourselves.
Central to the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities is the belief that we are individually and communally involved in and responsible for the evolution of Judaism, and for shaping the spiritual and cultural legacy we leave to future generations. You will find more information at http://www.jewishrecon.org.