Soon after Robbie and Hilary Metzger moved to this small Pacific Northwest town in 1982, they wondered what to do on Yom Kippur.
â€œWhy donâ€™t we climb Mount Zion?â€ Hilary suggested.
Kids in tow, the Metzger and Saran families hiked up the mountain, fasting the whole time.
This Yom Kippur, more than 25 years later, instead of hiking the Metzgers will be at services. Robbie will co-lead the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers for about 100 worshipers at the Episcopalian Church, where the Bet Shira congregation now holds its monthly Shabbat and holiday services for the Jews of Port Townsend.
The Jewish community in this small town of 9,000 renown for its artistic individualism — â€œThe place old hippies come to dieâ€ — is experiencing something of a boom with 65 unit-members at Bet Shira, more than 80 people at its Passover seder and 25 children interested in the relatively new Hebrew school.
Located on the Olympic Peninsula about 55 miles north of Seattle (and founded six months prior, in 1851), this lovely harbor town is not exactly the end of the world.
â€œBut you can certainly see it from here,â€ quip the locals, who voted overwhelmingly for Ralph Nader in 2000 and are best described by the townâ€™s bumper sticker: â€œWeâ€™re all here because weâ€™re not all there.”
The town is not without its Jewish history. European immigrants with names like Katz, Waterman and Rothschild set up shop here in the mid-19th century, also giving Port Townsend a Jewish mayor.
The current Jewish community took root after Port Townsend revitalized in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the arrival of the artists, hippies and nature lovers. Thatâ€™s when the Metzgers came from their Alaska homestead, where they had lived from 1972 to 1982.
The situation in Alaska was too much to handle, Hilary Metzger said.
â€œItâ€™s one thing to have one child, but to have two — milking the goats while my toddler was eating goat berries — was too difficult,â€ recalled Metzger, who at 55 has the natural, rosy-cheeked look of many of the women here.
Soon after she arrived, Metzger realized she needed to give her two sons a Jewish education.
â€œWe started having Sunday school for all the kids, and then the adults showed up, too,â€ she said.
For several years they all trekked to Seattle for the High Holidays until one year, according to Metzger, they said, â€œWhy do we need to go anywhere else? Why donâ€™t we do the holidays here?â€
She helped launch and name the informal prayer group Bet Shira — house of song — with participants holding some of their first few High Holidays services in “The Palindrome,â€ the practice studio of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, then residents of Port Townsend .
Many Jews did — and still do — live in town, but how many is anyoneâ€™s guess.
â€œA lot of people you run into in town will say, â€˜Oh, my husband is Jewish, my father is Jewishâ€™ — someone in their heritage is Jewish, but theyâ€™re not interested in participating,â€ said Deb Bakin, who moved here with her husband, Jon, in 2000. He is now the shul president and she runs the burgeoning Hebrew school.
Plenty of people move to Port Townsend with no thought of searching out a Jewish community, but some end up gravitating to it nonetheless.
â€œWhatâ€™s cool about this town is that weâ€™re almost at the end of the country and itâ€™s full of Jews, and theyâ€™re the misfits and thatâ€™s really very charming,â€ said Connie Segal, a 49-year-old esthetician and yoga teacher who left Austin, Texas, in 2004.
The soft-spoken healer found the Jewish community there â€œtoo conservativeâ€ for her taste, but â€œthe Jewish presence in this town is comforting to me,â€ she said.
Segal will attend High Holidays services to commemorate her fatherâ€™s death 11 years ago.
â€œI think he died on Yom Kippur because he wanted his kids to go to temple,â€ Segal said. â€œIt feels like I need to show up.”
She adds, “I can go to services and then get a massage at 3.”
â€œReluctant Jews,â€ is what psychotherapist Mark Saran terms some of the unaffiliated in Port Townsend. Saran, 58, says he â€œgot draggedâ€ here in 1982 from Seattle, where he grew up.
Sitting in his art- and plant-filled living room, wearing shorts and clogs despite the first September rain, he looks the laid-back part of Pacific Northwesterner.
â€œThere were a lot of Jews who took part in the community because it was here,â€ he said of the early days. â€œIf it hadnâ€™t been here, they wouldnâ€™t have sought it out.â€
Saran remembers one of the communityâ€™s founding fathers saying, â€œAs soon as you start charging dues, Iâ€™m leaving this congregation.â€
That was the zeitgeist of the town: People didnâ€™t want the Judaism they had left — large, organized, institutional. Back in the 1980s a woman offered to buy the Masonic Temple.
â€œIâ€™m going to buy it for the Jewish community — will you maintain it?â€ the woman asked the Metzgers. But they thought the job would fall to Robbie, a contractor, so they declined.
â€œThat was a mistake,â€ Hilary Metzger admits with a shrug.
When another opportunity arose to buy the Uptown Theater in the mid-1990s, the debate nearly â€œtore the community apart,â€ Metzger said.
In the end the community did not buy a building, and it also went through a â€œlull period,â€ according to Saran, especially after the children celebrated their b’nai mitzvot. (Metzgerâ€™s son was the first bar mitzvah on the Olympic Peninsula).
â€œSome of the forming families had put in a lot of years, and we just sort of â€“ stopped,â€ Saran said. â€œThe life started coming back six to eight years ago. The juice is the kids.â€
If organized Jewish life is returning here, itâ€™s due to families like the Bakins, who are the only family here to keep kosher — ironic given the pronunciation of their name. That was one of Bakinâ€™s concerns when the family left the Upper East Side of New York City, as well as the lack of religious school.
â€œTo some degree you have to adapt who you are,â€ Bakin said, surrounded by children’s drawings of Jewish holidays, a collection of antique menorahs and the congregationâ€™s Torah, which lay on their couch wrapped in a white garbage bag to protect it from the rain. (The ark remained at the church.)
â€œI remember one woman who moved here and said she was shocked there was no religious school. â€˜Shockedâ€™ seemed like an unusual word — this town has whatever people in this town are willing to provide. I wanted kidsâ€™ programming, so I created it.”
Bakin helped start the Hebrew school, and hosts it at her house once a week. Some 25 children aged 3 to 10 expressed interest for this year. It will begin after the High Holidays.
â€œThis is a do-it-yourself townâ€ Bakin said. â€œThis is a town where if you want it to happen, you have to make it happen. And that extends to the whole town.â€
These days, Bet Shira leaders donâ€™t do much outreach to unaffiliated Jews in Port Townsend.
â€œWe tried outreach one year before I became president,â€ said Barry Lerich, 71, a retired Navy officer who moved to the nearby Marrowstone Island in 2001 and also is credited with revitalizing the community. â€œIt just did not bring anybody in. Really, nobody.
â€œWe tried to contact other Jewish people that we knew to see if they would join, and they had no interest. None.â€
Thatâ€™s fine with Bakin.
â€œWeâ€™re not really trying to grow,â€ she said. â€œMy philosophy is weâ€™re here if you want us and need us, and if it doesnâ€™t work itâ€™s fine.â€
There are downsides to being part of a small, remote, liberal Jewish community. Itâ€™s not only the question of whether to buy a building or hire a rabbi. (â€œWe once had a rabbi on the High Holidays and everyone hated it,â€ Metzger said.) Itâ€™s not only the issue of how to serve as a â€œbig tentâ€ for members with differing views (at the High Holidays this year the community is working on the balance between Renewal/Reconstruction elements and Conservative/Reform elements of the service). Taking any sort of pro-Israel political stand, given the peace movementâ€™s pro-Palestinian bias here, is not even the biggest challenge.
The toughest question seems to be, â€œHow do you raise Jewish kids here?â€
Thatâ€™s what elementary school principal Amy Fields had asked Metzger when Fieldsâ€™ son started singing â€œHappy Birthdayâ€ when he saw her lighting Shabbat candles.
After that five families, including the Metzgers and the Bakins, committed to having Friday night Shabbat meals every week.
â€œThatâ€™s a big commitment,â€ said Cynde Marx, 41, a financial consultant who moved to Port Townsend from Los Angeles 13 years ago. Coincidentally, her older sister had carpooled with Jon Bakin in elementary school.
With three kids now in the Hebrew school, Marx is more involved with Judaism than she had been in her younger days.
â€œI remember one Yom Kippur being in Winchellâ€™s doughnuts with my Jewish boyfriend, and it was OK because we were both Jewish,â€ she said.
But now her husband has converted to Judaism, her Friday nights are occupied by Shabbat meals, her three daughters are in Hebrew school and her year is governed by the Jewish holidays.
â€œWhen I was living in Los Angeles, I never really thought about being Jewish, and here you really are making the time to be Jewish in a place where the majority are not,â€ Marx said. â€œI canâ€™t imagine living anywhere else.â€