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Jewish culture gets a home of its own in Chautauqua

The Everett Center

Roy L. Woodford

Dedicated in July 2009, the Everett Center is the newest of the denominational houses on the Chautauqua Institution’s grounds. This summer is its third popular season.

According to Maureen Rovegno, assistant director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion, there are sixteen denominations who meet at Chautauqua—Baha’i, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Science, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal, Chabad-Lubavitch, Hebrew Congregation (Reform Jewish), Lutheran, Metropolitan Community Fellowship, Presbyterian, the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Unity. To date, there are sixteen denominational houses on the Institute’s grounds representing eleven of the denominations. Add the houses for religious organizations such as the Chautauqua Christian Fellowship, the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons (three facilities), and the Ecumenical Community of Chautauqua, and it is abundantly clear that religious/spiritual facilities are an essential part of life for many Chautauquans.

Edith Everett and her husband Henry (of New York City) spent a week or two of their summers at Chautauqua for over thirty years. After her husband died, Everett was out for a walk and started to count the denominational houses, thinking that Chautauqua’s substantial Jewish community should have a place to call their own, a place that would be open to everyone, but of particular interest to Jews. The Everett family then became the lead donor for the Jewish Life Center in her husband’s memory, and she is thrilled at the reception of the project: “Attendance and participation is beyond wildest expectations. Thousands of people were through the building last year, and people are showing up for programs nine times a week. It’s given me a lot of pleasure!”

Everett also reports that she was glad to engage George Schnee, an architect who had “grown up” at Chautauqua, to design the facility, noting, “He had a feel for what the building should look like, a sense for knowing the adequate size, and for creating a building that would look like part of the landscape.” Indeed, Schnee—the president and founder of Schnee Architects, Newton, Massachusetts—had spent summers at Chautauqua since age six. His dad, Murray, played first violin in the Symphony, so Schnee was intimately familiar with the Institution and the grounds.

“Chautauqua traditions are obviously successful and worth honoring and respecting,” says the architect, “yet we wanted to do something that is reasonably contemporary, to be somewhat evocative of a traditional building, and yet keep it airy and use materials of the present day.” Schnee aimed to bridge both a contemporary and a traditional feel, and produce a building that would fit right in without trying to appear that it was built a century ago. There is traditional detailing in the columns, railings, and trim, while elsewhere the facility uses totally modern fenestration. Describing the site’s weather extremes as a “tough environment,” Schnee points to some of the practical synthetic exterior materials (i.e., cement board siding instead of wood), while emphasizing the use of sensible energy conservation practices.

The Everett Center is a place for conversation, friendship, study, and intellectual stimulation. It features a large community room, a library, dining room, and full kitchen. (The kitchen is strictly kosher dairy, but program attendees are welcome to bring their own lunches to be eaten in other areas.) In addition to the public rooms, there are comfortable accommodations that may be reserved for overnight guests.

The Everett Center should not be thought of as a religious congregation or house of worship. According to Len Katz (co-program chair for the initial season), “The emergence of a Jewish house at Chautauqua is quite an historic event. The core activity is to be a place on the Chautauqua campus where Jewish ideas and Jewish culture are played out. Activities range from a film series to discussions of a whole range of Jewish issues from political to social, historical, and philosophical.”

The schedule for this year shows weekly programmatic themes (Health, Applied Ethics, American Intelligence, The Arts, 21st Century Women, Iran, and the U.S. Economy) to be addressed through an eclectic blend of films, speakers, open discussions, brown bag lunches, book reviews, and other programming. Also planned are open-mike sessions where people can read their own pieces, poetry, and tell their own stories with a sense of comfort in a Jewish setting. Non-Jewish attendees are welcome, but the pulse of the building vibrates around Jewishness (in all but actual religious practice and worship). This approach has been one of the reasons for the Center’s enormous success.

Check the Everett Jewish Life center website (www.jewishcenterchautaqua.org) for specifics of season schedule, speaker biographies, and film festival offerings, or to check room availability through the online room request form.

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