A first in Steamboat Springs
It is a first, the kind of event that makes mothers cry and fathers exclaim, “We are super excited. Everyone is thrilled. It feels like the right thing.”
That is what Jamie Stone, a member of the Har Mishpacha congregation in Steamboat Springs. Colo., says about their first full-time rabbi .
Since its founding 18 years ago, Har Mishpacha has been served by a series of part-time rabbis who would come for a weekend a month.
“You lose your community and a cultural connection when it’s only one weekend a month,” says Susan Handloff, a longtime member of the congregation. “We wanted to look like a truly Jewish congregation, and you can’t look like that unless you have a spiritual leader there all the time.”
The journey to this moment
Har Mishpacha might have never graduated from having a part-time rabbi were it not for an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Remote work is a clear trend for younger, financially secure families moving to resort communities nationwide, including Steamboat Springs,” Stone says. “They are moving with work, buying homes, building community, and I think there are many more coming.”
In one year, Har Mishpacha grew from 50 members to 70. New and established members of the congregation joined to imagine the possibility of a full-time rabbi.
But who could fill the list of unique qualifications? The rabbi would have to be musical because that was important to the synagogue as a whole. They would have to be comfortable with people of all ages. As the first person to hold this position, they would have to be a self-starter. And perhaps most important, they would have to be comfortable relating to all denominations.
“However you see Judaism, we wanted to ensure we have a rabbi who will connect with you,” Stone says. “This is not a simple crowd!”
“We needed someone who would appeal to a spectrum of Jews that is not to be believed,” adds Handloff. “We have everything from strictly Orthodox to people who identify as purely cultural Jews.”
What were the odds the search committee would find everything they were looking for in one person? In what may best be described as beshert, they did find their rabbi. Har Mishpacha—translated “Mountain Family”—now has a leader for the family in Rabbi Kolby Morris-Dahary.
“She checked every box,” says Stone. “Everyone who talks with her loves her. She’s energetic, empathetic, thoughtful, and an entrepreneur. She really wanted to be here, and we wanted her here.”
The journey to becoming a rabbi
There is another first at play in Steamboat Springs. This is Rabbi Kolby’s first position as a rabbi. While she may be newly ordained, she is a natural. Everyone calls her Rabbi Kolby, a term of familiarity that reflects her ability to immediately connect with people.
She was raised in Denver, the child of a multi-faith marriage. Her father, the legendary music promoter Chuck Morris, is Jewish and her mother was raised Catholic. Rabbi Kolby’s introduction to Judaism came with Stepping Stones to a Jewish Me at Temple Emanuel, but she says she “grew up” when she attended JCC Ranch Camp. She liked it so much she worked there for 15 summers.
“That’s where I discovered that I loved being Jewish,” she says. “It put me on the path of Judaism and Jewish leadership.”
At the University of Colorado Boulder, she studied vocal performance and ethnomusicology with an eye on following in her father’s footsteps. But her path kept returning to spiritual leadership, and she decided that the business of music may not be the direction she wanted. Encouraged by the woman she calls her “lifetime mentor”—Lisa Farber Miller—she began to envision a career as a Jewish professional.
She served as Youth Director and Music Director at Hebrew Educational Alliance (HEA) and, through that work, found a new calling.
“It was a gradual process,” she says. “I am grateful to the many important mentors along the way who taught me that this could be a meaningful life.”
Rabbi Kolby made Aliyah in 2014 and began her studies at the reformed Hebrew Union College. She finished her training in the ALEPH Ordination Program, which is part of the renewal movement. She worked at HEA as a rabbinic intern and joined the team at Judaism Your Way for several years. Ordained in January 2022, she gave birth to her daughter, Shir, the same week. Now, the family, which also includes her husband Noam and son Oriyah, have moved to Steamboat Springs.
The journey into the future
Har Mishpacha shares space with Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, along with the town’s Buddhist and Muslim communities, creating a remarkably diverse faith center under the leadership of the Methodist pastor, Rev. Tim Selby, who has been in the community for 25 years. This rich resource of many faith traditions appealed to Rabbi Kolby. She also plans to use her background in music at Har Mishpacha.
“As Judaism evolves, we have to think about ways to get Jews into the room,” she says. “Music speaks to the heart. It is a universal language.”
She also liked the idea that she could be entrepreneurial in Steamboat Springs, thinking about new ways of connecting Jews to Judaism. But she acknowledges a debt to her supporters.
“I could not have done this by myself in the middle of any other state,” she says. “I have so many people and organizations in Denver supporting me on this journey, and that is such a blessing.”
Stone’s wife shed tears at the first services and his children, who had been traveling to Vail for Sunday School, have fallen in love with their new rabbi. Now, to Stone’s surprise, they want to go to adult services every Friday. Since Rabbi Kolby’s arrival, he says that the synagogue is already seeing new families at Shabbat services.
“We are getting people who may not have been involved for a long time back,” says Stone. “They want to be part of this movement we are creating.”
During her interview, Handloff was keeping an eye on her challah in the oven, baking for that night’s services. She praises Rabbi Kolby as someone who brought a breadth of experience with different denominations developed during her time in seminary and her work in Denver. “She was willing to be the rabbi for everyone,” says Handloff. “I have a sense that this congregation is now sustainable, and it will continue even after we are no longer here. I hope people come!”
Rabbi Kolby echoes that invitation. “I would love for people to know that our doors are open,” she says. “If they find themselves in Steamboat and would like to partner in this work, we are here and would love to connect with them.”