It’s obvious the University Congregational Church is no synagogue. But on Friday, Sept. 26, the church acts as one, housing the Rosh Hashana services of Missoula’s Har Shalom congregation.
As members of Har Shalom file in and wait for the New Year’s service to begin, the church takes on its typical Sunday pre-service feel: old friends shaking hands and hugging, kids laughing and playing between the pews, Rabbi Gershon Winkler strolling the aisles chatting.
“I told you I would come,” one member of the congregation tells the rabbi.
“I knew you would,” he replies with an embrace.
Har Shalom President Paul Rosen takes the mic to announce some New Year’s cheer. A Torah study group has begun meeting every Shabbat afternoon and has opened its doors to new members; University of Montana sophomore Alex Turmell is searching for students to help him found UM’s first Hillel chapter—a Jewish student group; Har Shalom will meet for a lay-led Shabbat next month. Cheers and applause break out at the landmark announcements.
There’s no indication that the homeless congregation—which cobbles together meetings here, at the University Villages Community Center and, on occasion, at members’ homes, gathers only a few times each year.
Har Shalom is too small to have its own building, or its own rabbi. Six times a year, the congregation imports Rabbi Winkler from New Mexico to lead services.
In some ways, Winkler is a perfect fit for Har Shalom: It is a congregation without a rabbi, and he is a rabbi without a congregation. And neither Har Shalom nor Winkler is attached to any of the three major movements of Judaism—reform, conservative and orthodox. But while Har Shalom is a blending of different Jewish philosophies, Winkler has a philosophy unto himself.
Winkler describes his approach as flexidoxy. Part theologian, part shaman and part teacher, Winkler’s studies have led him to reexamine Judaism’s connection to the earth. Over the course of this training, Winkler rejected orthodoxy and developed a more free-spirited personal theology. He spends most of his time running a spiritual retreat in New Mexico, and is studying the vision quests of the Native American religions and their parallels to Jewish mysticism.
Earlier on Friday, before services, Winkler guest-lectured in a World Issues class at Hellgate High School with his colleague Miriam Maron Emhoff, a Jewish singer and spiritual healer.
Exemplifying his open-minded approach, the two begin the class by chanting in ancient Hebrew and beating a drum, representing the similarities between Jewish and Native American traditions. But Winkler’s knowledge covers more than mysticism and anthropology. Over the 45-minute period, the rabbi deftly navigates the class through the history of the Middle East and the Jewish people.
As he lectures, he works to keep the students’ attention with the subtle wordplay of a beat poet and the clownish stuttering of a Stooge.
“Our land is right here between Egypt and Mesop…Mesap…Missoupa…this place.”
The high schoolers give little chuckles, but not much more. They’re teenagers, hard to impress. Later in the day, in front of the congregation, Winkler uses this same rhythmic, rhyming approach, constantly adjusting his cadence, inflections and volume. Before this captive audience, Winkler elicits none of the blank stares he received in the classroom. As former Missoulian and Har Shalom member David Rechtman says, “You either love him or hate him. There is no in between.”
Dressed in a chromatic tallit and yarmulka and white Velcro sneakers, Winkler begins his Rosh Hashana service with a description of his studies. After pouring over the Torah and other religious texts, he says he’s found no mention of Rosh Hashana.
“But I found another holiday,” he says. “The discovery of the first hemorrhoid. No, no just kidding.”
Har Shalom President Rosen knows that the rabbi might alienate people with his unconventional approach to religious teachings. Rosen inherited the visiting rabbi when he became the board’s president, but has been satisfied with Winkler ever since.
“I really like where he’s coming from, and I think that we’re on the same wavelength,” says Rosen. “He’s not on the same wavelength as everyone in the congregation, and some people don’t care for the rabbi. But it was a Jewish scholar who said, ‘If half the congregation doesn’t want to run you out of town, you’re not doing your job correctly.’”
As Winkler begins the service in earnest, he bounces back and forth from topic to topic: traditional songs and chants, anecdotes about a people who can recite prayers of faith even with numbers tattooed into their arms, and more jokes.
“Rabbi Winkler has been described as a cross between Rabbi Baal Shem Tov and Lenny Bruce,” says Rosen. “He’s spoken about women in the Torah and female sages in Jewish history, he’s given talks on Jewish astrology, he’s given talks on you name it.”
For a congregation like this one—dressed in everything from ties to T-shirts to Tevas—Winkler’s scattered approach seems appropriate. But the differences seem to end when the songs begin and Har Shalom unifies in chorus. If, as Rosen and Rechtman say, there are members of Har Shalom who think Winkler strays too far from tradition, they don’t make themselves known. Maybe they haven’t come, or won’t speak up.
UM student Turmell is more than happy to speak his mind about Winkler, but he has nothing but praise for the rabbi’s adventurous spirit.
“I love him,” says Turmell. “He’s really into the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. That’s something I’m really interested in, too.”
At the service, there are a few who share Turmell’s opinion. They represent a younger group of congregation members, excited about Winkler’s rejection of dogma and his theories about a connection between the mysticisms of different cultures.
As Rosen says, Winkler can’t fulfill everyone in the Jewish community’s needs. And maybe no rabbi could. What’s important to Rosen is that the Jewish community stay active by coming to Winkler’s services, being part of Torah study or joining Hillel.
As Winkler blows the shofar—the horn of a ram—to end a service sprinkled with jokes, songs and Jewish wisdom, a child in a front pew giggles at the sound. No one turns to hush the child; the congregations’ eyes are on Winkler, smiling at the child’s amusement.