Monadnock Profiles: Bennington’s Joshua Segal is a rabbi, engineer, skier, and cemetery expert

  • Joshua Segal of Bennington. June 22, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Joshua Segal of Bennington. June 22, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Joshua Segal of Bennington. June 22, 2021. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Joshua Segal skiing. Courtesy image—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/4/2021 2:06:22 PM

When Joshua Segal talks about how it feels to be nearly alone atop Crotched Mountain on a winter morning, you can tell that skiing is something more than a fun pastime for the Bennington resident. As an ordained rabbi, Segal sees many spiritual parallels in skiing, and even used to teach classes to that extent. And that’s just one facet of a fascinating life: Segal is also a patent holder with a Ph.D in computer engineering, and a published expert in cemeteries and grave markers. At 75, in addition to serving as a ski patroller at Crotched Mountain, he’s heavily involved in cemetery volunteer work, including as a member of the Bennington Cemetery Commission -and is penning his memoirs.

His varied interests and career path might seem unlikely for some, but Segal sees nothing inconsistent. “We’re all granted a left side brain, a right side brain and a physical body, and my goal was to use them all,” he said.

Segal grew up in Messina, New York, with a father who served as a small-town rabbi. “If you’re a small-town rabbi, you do everything,” he said, from writing and delivering the services to changing the light bulbs. Segal himself left home and earned his Ph.D in computer engineering from Rensselaer in 1973. Soon after, however, he got involved in a new congregation with a part-time rabbi who took summers off, and discovered he enjoyed leading summer services periodically. At first, he balked at the five years of full-time seminary he’d need to attend to become ordained, so soon after finishing his academic degrees. But it didn’t take long before he cashed in everything and went back to class, this time for a very different purpose.

“From ‘83 to 2007 I was a full-time engineer by day and a half-time rabbi by nights and weekends, and in the winter I taught skiing,” he said. “It kept me pretty busy.”

In liberal, or reformed Judaism, “if science says one thing, and the Bible says something else, you take the Bible as metaphor,” Segal said.“There’s really nothing in Judaism that conflicted with my science background,” he said, and, in fact, he found the two subjects to work complimentary parts of his brain. However, after writing “probably the nerdiest sermon of my career,” in which he referenced differential equation boundary problems, he learned that most of his congregation was content to just receive spiritual guidance, and he adjusted his subject matter accordingly.

Engineering was a good vocation, Segal said, “but I never felt as if it were my career or calling.” In 1979, he and a colleague submitted a patent for a technology that would later evolve into “something called Voice-Over IP,” Segal said. He got $200 when they applied for the patent, and $200 more when it was granted. “In 1984, the company didn’t renew the patent because they couldn’t figure out what anybody could ever use it for,” he said, saying he’s always considered it “the fish that got away.”

Although Segal was a ski instructor long before he became a rabbi, he came to discover a “tremendous crossover” between skiing and spirituality. While teaching at the now-defunct Temple Mountain ski area, he began to offer courses in which he’d discuss tenets of Kabballah-Jewish mysticism with students on the chairlift, and then how to apply them to their skiing style on their next run. Ski Magazine featured Segal’s one-of-a-kind course in a 2006 edition, which played with a “rabbi going to temple” pun. “Which I thought was cute,” Segal said. “This worked better in the days of slower lifts,” he said. Although you could really do some teaching on the 10-minute ride up Ragged Mountain, Crotched Mountain’s high-speed lift would leave some lessons to be completed at the top of the hill, he said. Segal’s favorite ski areas? Crotched Mountain, which he can ski to from his house, and Killington, which he skis in the early and late season.

“Did God invent a rabbi just for me?” longtime friend Peter Stein remembered asking on at least one occasion after meeting Segal in the mid-nineties, when Stein sought out a temple so that his oldest son could have a bar mitzvah ceremony, eventually arriving at Segal’s synagogue, which was based in Nashua at the time. “He has a very factual, science-based approach to the Talmud,” Stein said, which worked just fine for him: Stein has one Ph.D in oceanographic engineering, and another in physics. He’s also a lifelong skier, and he and Segal became fast friends once they started skiing together. “I was a groomer skier from Waterville Valley,” Stein said, while Segal preferred the woods. It wasn’t long before Segal taught Stein how to follow him through the trees. “It totally changed my world,” Stein said, recalling the long conversations “about everything in life” that would start in the car and continue onto the ski lifts, including a fair amount about the spirituality of skiing. Stein describes Segal as a best friend, a confidante, and his rabbi. “He’s crazy smart,” he said.

Segal retired from his pulpit in 2012. He expressed concern as he considered how few young people are participating in churches, synagogues, and fraternal organizations today, and he wonders where kids learn their values in a largely secular climate. Despite these and other concerns for the future, he said it gave him hope when Americans voted Donald Trump out of office in 2020. “This was the scariest four years of my life,” he said. “The rhetoric I was hearing from Donald Trump mirrored the 1930s,” he said, emboldening the Nazis and other hate groups in the country. “I guess there’s some hope there,” he said.

Segal first got interested in grave markers when he had to create one for his mother after she passed away in 1998. Since then, he’s published a number of books on Jewish burial sites and grave markers, and visitor’s guides to specific cemeteries. He’s also written a guide to Mine Falls Park in Nashua, and Crotched Mountain’s skiable glades. “If I know something that I think somebody else might be interested in, I write a book on it,” he said.

“A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery” (2005) is in its fourth edition, as it’s proved to be a popular reference text for genealogists, Segal said. During the summer, he and his wife live near the historic Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Segal has helped to index every marker in the cemetery with a photograph and a full transcription.

When Segal came to Bennington eight years ago and ran for Cemetery Commission, he said he heard that at least one resident was confused as to what interest a rabbi would have in the town’s cemeteries, given there were so few Jews buried in town, but Segal was interested in using his extensive cemetery knowledge to give back to his chosen community. He’s fully indexed the town’s two cemeteries since.

“I believe in epitaphs,” Segal said, as gravestones are likely to remain standing far longer than any person will. He’s seen some great ones, and others that are “terribly inappropriate.” What will be on his own grave? Although he hasn’t gone so far as one of his Association for Gravestone Studies colleagues, who keeps his own tombstone on display in his living room, Segal said he has a design in mind, and a meaningful plot picked out.

“The tough thing,” Segal said about going all-in on interests and hobbies, “is to let go, because nobody has enough time to be an expert in a zillion different things.” Segal gave up playing bridge when he went to rabbinate school, and tennis when he realized he didn’t have the time it’d take to maintain his skills. Despite a lifetime of “fanatical” interests in various arenas, Segal didn’t hesitate when asked which of his accomplishments he’s most proud of. “My pulpit,” he said, considering it the common thread through everything else he’s done. “I was 30 years at the same pulpit.”

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