A Lesson from Edith Wharton’s Estate

The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires, never really captured my attention. I lived nearby for three years, and have returned every summer since leaving. In all that time, I had absolutely zero inclination to go visit the place. Frankly, I knew little about it other than it was one of the Berkshires “cottages”. Much like the famous “cottages” in Newport, RI, these homes are typically huge estates that the financial elite used for a few weeks a year to escape the heat of their regular homes in New York, Boston, and other major cities. I am a devoted student of history, and usually love the chance to explore historical settings. At the same time I generally find garish displays of wealth distasteful. This is true especially when the wealth had been “earned” on the backs and through the misery of mistreated workers, as was common among America’s early 20th century Robber Barons. Thus, the idea of not visiting The Mount, or any other of the Berkshires cottages, was a conscious decision on my part and possibly in part a protest.

I visited the Berkshires again this summer, and was moved to change my mind about visiting The Mount.

This year The Mount is offering something new and different: free jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. I love all types of well-played jazz. I especially like it when it is free. I decided that I’d have to check it out before I needed to be at my hosts for Shabbat dinner. It was a lovely evening of music, to be sure. More profoundly it completely changed my thinking about The Mount, and in doing so offers us a lesson to consider as a sacred synagogue community.

I parked at the main lot, and walked about a half-mile to the main house. Along the way I passed through beautiful grounds, thoughtfully planned gardens, and an incredible collection of modern sculptures. Sitting behind the main house with a view of it and the gardens that recalled a European sense of style, I had perhaps the best “Kabbalat Shabbat” I’ve enjoyed off the pulpit. I met and talked with interesting and friendly people, enjoyed the music and scenery, and found myself actually more interested than I could have imagined about The Mount.

That became even truer when I met the Director of Development who was walking over to every party on the lawn to welcome us. In the unhurried few minutes he and I spoke, I learned a little bit about the Writers in Residence program for women fiction writers, how it came to be and where it was heading. I learned what some of the out-buildings on the grounds were originally, their current usage, and the plan for them in the future. I learned a little how Edith herself designed the gardens, what her concerns were regarding aesthetics, and her vision regarding their sustainability. I was impressed on many levels, and told him so.

I shared with him that what most impressed me was the engagement approach The Mount had adopted to get folks like me—remember, I had no interest really in ever visiting the place—onto the grounds. We talked about the idea of using a hook that was not immediately part of the overt mission of The Mount (live, free jazz) to get new faces to come visit. I expressed my approval for a brave and brilliant strategy; by leveraging the physical plant aspect and asset in a way that does not undermine the mission and values of The Mount, its board and staff are succeeding in introducing it to a whole new potential audience of visitors, and even financial supporters. (Those in the sanctuary last Rosh HaShanah will perhaps recognize this also corresponds neatly with my “3 Points for Engagement” remarks: lower barriers blocking accessibility, make the experience compellingly meaningful for the here-and-now, and create inspiration for future connection.) I know that next trip to The Berkshires I will likely plan a return visit not just for the jazz, but for The Mount itself. I want to learn more about the sculptures, the gardens, and yes, even the main house itself. I even want to learn more about The Mount’s educational and cultural mission.

The lesson here for a congregation, especially our congregation, should be obvious. There are numerous of ways in which we could emulate The Mount’s approach, adapted as appropriate to our unique reality and needs. There is a growing population of single, young professionals in Loudoun who are not willing to pay Fairfax Co. housing prices. How could we position CSS to become their wedding venue of choice? Then there is the growing population of Jewish retirees in Loudoun County who are already asking if I could officiate at their funeral without being members of the congregation. Currently that means going to Fairfax, Montgomery, or even Baltimore Counties for a Jewish funeral home. What if we were able to partner with one of the local funeral homes and provide a Jewish sacred space for Jewish funerals in our sanctuary for both affiliated synagogue members and unaffiliated members of the larger community? Then there are the visitors coming for the wineries, antiques shopping, and other destinations in Loudoun. Driving up and down Rt. 7, I see all the farm stands, and a growing number of them now offer BBQ. Could we partner with one of them and use our kitchen to offer the exclusive Kosher BBQ Brisket option on Rt. 7? Loudoun loves music. Could we partner with a promoter and use the social hall for Sunday afternoon music concerts before the Sunday Concerts at the Courthouse?

Clearly, we don’t have to do any of these things. We could decide to trod familiar ground, comfortably avoiding the unknown. All I can say is that had The Mount decided to stay on that path, I’d never be planning on going back for yet another visit. Need I say more?

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