Small towns with ancient synagogues pique my interest, and Bellingham, in Washington state, is one of them.
This Pacific Northwest city, shrouded by forests, has had a Jewish community since the early 1900s, when the first two dozen Jewish families arrived from the shtetl of Skopishok in northeast Lithuania. The existing Beth Israel synagogue was built in 1925, and, though its stately architecture hasn't changed much over the years, the fabric of the community that uses it certainly has.
Like most European immigrants at the time, the first tide of Jews to Bellingham brought with them stringent Orthodox practice. Women sat upstairs during prayers, looking down on their tallit- and tefillin-clad men, and the basement of the synagogue contained a mikvah that was an important part of their Jewish lives.
Today, the Bellingham Jewish community has adopted Reform Judaism, and the old mikvah has long since been removed to make room for a larger kitchen and reception facility downstairs, an area that doubles as the weekly Hebrew school.
The upstairs women's-only area is dusty and unused now, but the beautiful synagogue, with its old, wooden pews, arched windows and elegant mahogany moldings, still reverberates with prayer.
Though they don't make the trek for the synagogue, many members of Vancouver's Orthodox community make the hour-long pilgrimage across the border into Bellingham. They come to replenish their supply of kosher food, which, ironically, is more readily available here than in their hometown — and at better prices.
Sittin' on Dock of Birch Bay
For this writer, though, the draw has always been a small, seaside town perched on the cliffs of a bay not far from Bellingham, aptly called Birch Bay for the forest of trees that hugs the promontory. From a cozy, aging cabin that has somehow resisted the decaying effects of time, I can hear the ocean crash against the cliff at night and take long walks in the early morning, my only companions my children, spouse and the statuesque herons that fish silently from the shallows.
Birch Bay is a place of bald eagles and bright sea urchins, tidal pools and stormy nights.
When the solitude gets too much, I pack the family into the minivan and head into Bellingham, where there's no shortage of places to explore. Though it's a short drive from Vancouver and Seattle, the city has a completely different personality than its bigger sisters up and down the I-5 highway. The presence of Western Washington University, for example, has lent Bellingham a distinctly relaxed, ethno-bongo charm that's easy to fall for.
Organic food is widely available, and there's no shortage of yoga studios, vintage clothing stores and cozy bookshops. Of course, the highway is littered with the mandatory American malls, chain stores and restaurants, but, just a few miles away, there's another world of retail, one where mom-and-pop stores prevail; families, students and empty nesters represent the population fabric; and the great outdoors is celebrated at every turn.
"I like the small-town atmosphere in Bellingham," confesses Tim Baker, a local who married a member of the Jewish community and has made it his hobby to catalogue some of the history of the Jews in the city.
"There's more culture here than in most small towns, thanks to the university; it's pretty safe, and there's lots of recreation."
He's talking about the hiking paths that snake into verdant forests minutes from the highway, the many freshwater lakes and the seaside beach walks that locals haunt.
One of those beach walks culminates in Fairhaven, now a historic part of Bellingham, but, in the late 1800s, a town that was poised to be the hub city of the Pacific Northwest.
Back in 1889, it sported 35 new hotels, with 300 people arriving each month to help clear the land, build a railroad, and create homes and offices.
Then, just three years later, came the news that Seattle, not Fairhaven, would be that western hub for importation. The town fell into a depression for a while, but pulled itself up eventually, establishing a retail and residential community where chain stores are truly non-existent.
Shoppers spend their time in craft stores, making their own pottery, browsing through one-of-a-kind gift displays and enjoying the ambience of a historic neighborhood that has refused to relinquish its character to the forces of modernity.
This is an essential part of the charm of the city of Bellingham as a whole: a warm embrace of history and an adamant insistence that it not relinquish its personality and become a bland, unmemorable place en route to Seattle or Vancouver.