Stahls honored for work in Chautauqua’s Jewish community

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer

One Friday morning earlier this season, the board of the Hebrew Congregation received a distressing phone call. The rabbi who was supposed to lead that night’s Kabbalat Shabbat service was dealing with a rabbinical emergency and was not going to be able to make it.

Instead of stressing out about who was going to step in and lead the service, the board immediately knew who to turn to: Rabbi Samuel Stahl.

Len Katz, co-president of Chautauqua Institution’s Hebrew Congregation, recalls that story as a perfect example of Sam’s character.

“He just stepped forward,” Katz said. “He made no fuss about it.”

Sam and his wife, Lynn, will be honored at the Hebrew Congregation Closing Banquet tonight for all of their contributions to the Jewish community on the grounds, as well as to the Chautauqua community as a whole. The banquet will take place at approximately 6:15 p.m. in the Hurlbut Church dining room following tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

When Katz and the other members of the congregation’s board were planning the banquet earlier this season, someone suggested honoring the Stahls.

“When it came up,” Katz said, “we said, ‘We should have done this sooner.’ ”

The couple is the first to be honored by the congregation in this capacity. Tonight’s event will include dinner, songs, speeches and the presentation of a special gift. Although the congregation holds dinners throughout the season, this closing banquet is by far the largest; there are approximately 100 people signed up to attend, Katz said.

The Stahls first came to Chautauqua in 1998, when Sam was invited to speak at a 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. He was joined by a Lutheran minister, with whom he discussed “Bridges and Barriers to a Christian-Jewish Understanding.”

The couple continued to return for a week or two each season for the next few years. In 2000, Sam was invited to give a weeklong series of Interfaith Lectures. And in 2003, he was named the Institution’s theologian in residence, only the second in Chautauqua’s history.

It was during the 2003 Season that the Stahls became involved with the Hebrew Congregation. Sam led a service for the congregation that summer, and he has continued to lead several services each season since.

Sam and Lynn have been involved with the Hebrew Congregation in a number of capacities throughout the past decade, Katz said.

“Sam has been extremely helpful to us,” Katz said. “He set up our prayer book, served as an adviser — we turn to him for any questions that we have, and he leads some of our services.”

Sam is also involved throughout the Chautauqua community. He gives a number of lectures in the Hall of Christ every season. His topics have included life after death, the state of religion in Israel and Judaism’s views on homosexuality, abortion and birth control. At 3:30 p.m. next Wednesday in the Hall of Christ, Sam will speak about Judaism and healing, as part of Week Nine’s theme, “Health Care: Reform and Innovation.”

Lynn is also extremely active on the grounds, particularly with the Department of Religion’s interfaith work. She was one of the founders of the Chautauqua Dialogues program, now in its second year. The program features weekly facilitator-led group discussions, focusing on the week’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme. She also teaches Special Studies courses each season.

“[Lynn] is the kind of person we say reflects us as well as we possibly could [be],” Katz said. “She is bright, articulate.”

The Stahls also work as a pair in the community. This season, Sam and Lynn spoke together in a lecture for the Unitarian Universalist Ethics Seminar. They spoke about how they have each “experienced transformation as Jews,” Lynn said, while other pairs spoke throughout the rest of the week on their own religious traditions, including Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.

The couple also works with the participants of the New Clergy Conference, an Institution program aimed at clergy who are in their first five to seven years of ministry. Sam meets with the clergy members to discuss Judaism, while Lynn meets with their spouses. The entire group participates in a demonstration Shabbat dinner at the end of the week. Lynn used to cook the entire meal herself, and they would cram the 20 or so guests into their small condo for dinner. The Stahls still participate, although the dinner is now catered and the event is held in a different location.

Before retiring 11 years ago, Sam served for 26 years in the pulpit of a Reform congregation in San Antonio. Before that, he spent two years as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. In this capacity, Sam was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., serving the needs of those at the Pentagon, Andrews Air Force Base and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He later spent a year in Seoul, South Korea.

The Stahls feel strongly about the importance of religious acceptance for all. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that a Jewish person purchased property on the grounds, they said.

“I don’t think it was [Institution] policy that Jews couldn’t buy property,” Sam said, “but owners wouldn’t sell to Jews.”

And this phenomenon wasn’t limited to Chautauqua; rather, it was a national trend.

“This is what I call ‘gentile anti-Semitism,’ ” he said. “Jews couldn’t get into medical schools in big numbers; they couldn’t get into country clubs.”

This wasn’t anything formalized, Sam said. It was more of a general “feeling.”

“ ‘You’re not our kind, we don’t want you here, stay away,’” he said.

Because of this trend in Jewish history, Lynn feels that it is important for Jews to work on the behalf of others experiencing discrimination.

She is particularly excited about the current momentum behind the plans for a Martin Luther King Jr. House on the grounds.

“He wasn’t just a force representing blacks,” Lynn said of King. “It was a force for peace and interchange — interfaith interchange.”