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Small Town American Judaism

The following is a transcript of Episode 143 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on June 15th, 2023. 

There are two Jewish ideas I’ve been enchanted with for a long time, and if you’ve listened to the show before, you’ve probably heard me talk about them. The idea of Jewish peoplehood and the intrinsically related idea of diaspora. 

Jewish peoplehood is a wild concept. It’s unruly and it’s kind of impossible. We Jews stake a claim about our identity that is beset by counterfactuals. We insist and have for a long time that we constitute a people in spite of all of our racial, ethnic, geographic, ideological, and behavioral differences. We insist that we’re a people in spite of the fact that we largely cannot agree on the terms of how we would live a basic Judaism together across a lot of those differences, and despite the fact that for most of Jewish history, Jewish communities around the world functioned essentially autonomously from one another, linked entirely through just this theoretical construct.

We make this claim about Jewish peoplehood despite the fact that today, we rarely can communicate in the same language across our differences, and increasingly many Jews feel that where they live sets them in some meaningful opposition, not just difference, but opposition to Jews living elsewhere. 

But I love the idea of Jewish peoplehood and all that comes with it. The more we understand Jewish peoplehood, the better we understand the ways that Judaism is actually different from all other religions, even though it’s sometimes presented through the lenses of how other religions describe themselves. And I find that many of the most interesting questions and problems of Jewish life today emanate from the sheer audacity and difficulty of this idea of Jewish peoplehood. 

Now one of the reasons for the need that developed in Jewish history and tradition for the idea is the condition of, or maybe the invention of, this notion of diaspora, a word and an idea that the Jewish people popularized well before it became popular to others. It might have been the case that when the people of Judea left their homeland, either voluntarily or forcibly, a couple millennia ago, they would have merely or gradually blended into their new surroundings and adopted the local identities of their new places. 

But instead, Judeans became Jews, and described themselves as a people once linked to a homeland far away, who were now scattered like seeds, that’s the root of the word diaspora, in the lands of their dispersions. It’s a radical idea when you think about it, and it’s now the template for how many different nationalities imagine themselves as collectives, not constrained by borders. 

The Jewish people combined these two ideas, the collectivity implied in belonging to a sense of Jewish peoplehood, and the rejection of geography as something that should divide us, through the idea of diaspora. And we did this as a means of redefining our identity and thriving for the past 2,000 years. 

But as amazing as these ideas are, they belie an underlying truth that the more obvious way to understand the biodiversity of Jewish civilizations across the earth is that they’re actually really all quite different from one another and maybe separate things altogether. Judaism flourishes. fascinatingly in a wild array of cultural and political climates, and it has always evolved in those locations based on relationship to peoples and places to become both endemic and still a little different from all of the surrounding cultures that defines itself. 

I used to study ancient Jews in the Roman Empire, and we can basically find evidence of Jewish civilization everywhere the Roman army stepped foot. And while the peoplehood instinct inclines us to see, all these different Judaisms as part of a strange whole, the more straightforward reading of the data would notice all the differences and perhaps conclude that we are indeed talking more about Judaisms than about Judaism. 

Local color really matters in the history of Jewish civilizations, and sometimes especially when the differences feel so vast and the commonality seems so hard to find, it’s tempting to call Judaism what it is, a big name for a lot of really different phenomena. Sometimes we Jews like to pretend that geography doesn’t matter, like when we all, regardless of where we are, face towards Jerusalem, or when we imagine in our liturgies that wherever we live now is only temporary, or when we find ways to care about and connect across difference to Jews in a different part of the world. 

But most of the time, our geography has a huge effect on our Jewishness, even if it can feel invisible to us because it’s the only one we know. And for what it’s worth, I feel this less when it comes to big geographic differences in the Jewish people, like American Jews versus Israeli Jews. Globalization and personal relationships shrink those differences. 

I think about this local Judaism phenomenon more when I simply compare my own childhood upbringing in a suburb to my life now raising children in New York City. It feels so deeply different, not just roughly the same Judaism flourishing in different places, but I don’t know. maybe something different entirely. What happens when we shift our focus from the national to the local, from talking, as we often do on this show, about that unwieldy thing called the North American Jewish community, which is not really a thing, to North American Jewish communities, all of these thousands of flowers blooming across this continent? 

For a while now, I’ve been following with interest the work of Rabbi Rachel Isaacs. Rachel is the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, Maine, the inaugural holder of the Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond Chair in Jewish Studies at Colby College. She’s also founder and executive director of the Center for Small-Town Jewish Life at Colby College, which is a groundbreaking institution committed to supporting small-town and rural Jewish communities. 

Now, this center is not the only such entity in the North American Jewish community thinking about Jewish life on the local. Another important institution is the Institute for Southern Jewish Life. But I’m curious about the way this particular organization is trying to do something that is both interested in the local, but in ways that might be scalable and applicable to a wide variety of places. 

So Rachel, thanks so much for coming on the show today. And let me just start with this. Tell us about Jewish life in Waterville, Maine.

Rachel: What a great question, Yehuda. Thanks so much for having me on. 

It’s impossible for me in the response to one question to encapsulate everything that makes Jewish life in Waterville special. But I’m gonna tell one anecdote that I think animates what makes Jewish life in Waterville so radically different than the type of Jewish community I grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in a town that had eight synagogues and several kosher restaurants and bakeries. 

So my synagogue in Waterville, Maine was founded in 1902 by seven Jewish families, all related to peddlers of different kinds. And right around the same time that the Jewish community was establishing itself in Waterville, in a little Orthodox synagogue on Kelsey Street across the street from where our current synagogue stands, there were two other ethnic groups that came into Waterville, the Franco-Americans, which was an ethnic group that I knew nothing about before moving to Maine, and also a very significant Maronite Lebanese Christian population that came via Canada down the Kennebec River to Waterville for factory jobs. They came to this area fleeing Ottoman persecution of Christians in the Levant, and they worked side by side with Franco-Americans and Jews for over a century, and both the Jewish community and Lebanese and Franco-American communities are still here and make up the ethnic mosaic of Waterville.

And one of the first Shiva minyanim I ever performed as a young rabbi in Waterville, we got to the Mourner’s Kaddish and one of the members of the Lebanese community, that was a colleague of the man who died, came up to me, and she said, ever since I was a child and came to Shiva minyanim in the Jewish families’ homes in Waterville, Maine, that prayer always stands out to me because it sounds just like my liturgy from church. 

And this was very strange to me. And I said, oh, that’s really interesting. And when the Abunah, like the Abba, was having his jubilee in downtown Waterville, I was invited as the first rabbi to ever attend one of these gatherings. and I sat in a mass that was conducted completely in Syriac, which sounded exactly like Aramaic, and I could recognize the verses from Isaiah. I realized that other than the Abunah, I was the only person in the room who understood the liturgy. 

And at that point, we developed this very tight-knit relationship based on relations that had been going on for a long time. And our synagogue and the Maronite church in town went down to a biblical history exhibit in Boston, we split the cost of a bus and went down together. And these relationships have developed over time and they are deep and intimate and special. And it’s fascinating to me that a core component of Jewish life in Waterville, Maine is feeling this very interesting kinship with an Arabic speaking, deeply American Lebanese community. 

And if you go into my synagogue, you’ll see that the water fountain at Beth Israel Congregation was donated by the Lebanese Youth Organization of Waterville, Maine in the year 1958, because when the Lebanese Catholics were excluded from the CYO by other Catholics in Waterville, they played sports and were welcomed in by the Jewish community and our synagogue. And as an act of appreciation, there is this monument to the friendship between Lebanese folks and Jewish folks in Waterville. 

And I tell this story because we are a Waterville Jewish community. And it has to do with the types of relationships we have, the diversity of the town, and really being rooted in the unique culture of Waterville.

Yehuda: That’s really interesting. And I want to come back to that in a minute because it means that when you say small-town Jewish life, it actually is a bit of a paradox because all of these small towns provide all of this texture and identity to the Jewish community, so it raises questions of scalability. 

I want to come back to that though. I totally didn’t know we were going to go down this path, but have you ever seen the episode in season four of Northern Exposure, the old television show called Kaddish for Uncle Manny? Because the story that you just told, and I don’t think, sounds like you haven’t seen it, I’m telling my listeners, this is your homework. You have to watch this. You can find it online. It’s a Jewish doctor who winds up in a small town in Alaska. That’s the premise of the show. 

But there’s one hyper-Jewish episode where Joel finds out that his Uncle Manny dies, and he spends the whole episode searching for Jews in Alaska to make a minyan to say Kaddish. And the conclusion of the show, sorry for the spoilers, I mean, it came out 30 years ago. The conclusion of the show is that he decides that ultimately, Kaddish is meant to be celebrated in community, together with the people who are the members of your community. And instead of looking for Jews who would feel like strangers, he constitutes the community together with his non-Jewish neighbors and tells them what to do, and he puts on a kippah, and he says to Kaddish, then he says, and now we’ll go get a little nosh, but it is a magnificent little sermon on how Judaism becomes something different from the standpoint of community and peoplehood because of the ways that it’s interwoven itself into Jewish life. That sounds like what you’re talking about.

Rachel: It does, and what you’re hitting at is a unique tension of my work in Waterville, because I’m a conservative rabbi. Most rabbis who serve small-town communities, insofar as small town communities still have rabbis, are either Chabad or Reform. I was placed here by a program that no longer exists, run by the Jewish Theological Seminary, to place conservative rabbis in small towns. I was the only one who stayed. 

But it’s interesting, because on one hand, I won’t say Kaddish without a minyan of 10 halakhic Jews. So I will still demand that because I know that if I loosen that structure, we’ll never make a minyan for anything. And so that halakhah is still really important to me and it makes my job and my wife’s job very difficult because we’re constantly drawing people in that way and keeping them in. 

On the other hand, one of the features of places like Alaska and Maine is the way in which, not just through intermarriage, but really just through the closeness of our communities. Jewish communities have significant participation by non-Jews. And one of the teachings that I come back to time and time again in explaining my work in Maine, actually came, and this was unplanned, but when I was at the Shalom Hartman Institute at RLI, There was a teaching by Christine Hayes about the role of non-Jews in Jewish communities. This was mostly in antiquity, but it actually rung very true for my work in Maine, which is that there are two separate questions. 

One is very operative for me as a conservative rabbi that’s bound by halakhah, which is who is a Jew, who counts in a minyan. But then the other question that’s much more central in my work for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. that’s non-denominational, that’s academic, is what does a Jewish community do? And it completely decenters the idea of halakhic Jewish identity, because many of the people in the work of cultivating, sustaining, and innovating within the context of our statewide Jewish community are not Jewish, but are very much part of the Jewish community. 

I think that’s going to be a trend. That is going to extend beyond small towns and is going to become something that is in play nationally in the not-so-distant future.

Yehuda: I like that you use the term decenter, because what you’re drawing a distinction between is, there can be an intact narrative of identity that a person actually has to go through a ritual of crossing the boundary to become a Jew. But that’s totally different from the question of who might be adjacent to belong to Jewish communities in totally different ways. 

And you’re right, I think this is going to become a trend. And by the way, this is an old story. This is what happened for Jews in the Roman Empire. Historians have struggled for a long time to make sense of, what does it mean that non-Jewish patrons, as you described with your water fountain, non-Jewish patrons in antiquity built, you know, contributions and statuary in ancient synagogues? And if you take the halachic approach, then you try to figure out, well, maybe they converted, instead of saying, no, Jews served as part of the civic environment in the places that they were in. So for non-Jews to participate in Jewish life was a civic activity, as opposed to being a kind of conversion activity. 

So you gave an example of a water fountain, you gave an example of, in some ways, ritual or communal life. What does it look like for you as a halakhically observant conservative rabbi raising kids? I mean, there’s also, what does that mean for home Jewish life, for what you’re trying to do?

Rachel: I mean, to be perfectly honest, it’s very hard for my kids, but I also think it’s very rich. We are Shomer Shabbat and Shomer Kashrut. So what that means is all of our meat comes through the mail through Grow and Behold. All of our wine comes through the mail through, which is actually a lot easier than the previous generations of observant Jews in Waterville for whom there would be monthly deliveries on the Greyhound bus from Boston, and the entire Jewish community would come to the bus station to pick up their wine and meat on the regular. By the time I got to Waterville, there was only one kosher family left, even though it was founded as an Orthodox community. 

What’s crucial for my kids, I think, is, at great expense and at great trouble, we will spend between four to six weeks a year in Israel. And that’s a very intentional choice. We, I’m the Hebrew professor at Colby College. We are raising our children bilingually. They’re very connected with my Hebrew students at the college. But it’s crucial for me to bring them to Israel regularly. Otherwise, they’re going to think that this is all made up, that we’re just this crazy family, like sort of like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda on the edge of the earth, making it up as we go along. 

And it’s really important for them, when we’re in the hotel in Jerusalem to see, you know, their favorite cartoons in Hebrew to reinforce all these things and to see, oh, this is real. Other people do this. We are not out there on our own. Even though there are other families in our synagogue and that they see at the conference, they know that we’re connected by the bonds of tradition.

But very few of the families are observant in the way that we’re observant. And so, for my children, it’s important for us to bring them to New York, to bring them to Israel at certain junctures, not only to see our family in both places, but so that they understand that there is a context for these behaviors because we are not only peripheral in Maine, we’re also very peripheral within the Jewish community in terms of our observance. 

And something interesting that we found is that their closest friends happen to be observant Mormons and evangelical Christians. Because the people with whom they find a certain type of kinship are other kids in their school who have deeply religious lives. And that sort of intersection of identity has been really fascinating for us to witness.

Yehuda: Yeah, you alluded to Chabad earlier, and Chabad is famously the rabbi and the rebbetzin who will move out to Jehevitzvelt to do what they need to do. And sometimes they’re also getting meat in the mail and sometimes they know the shchita to be able to do it themselves. 

But it strikes me that one of the things that motivates Chabad in a way that liberal Judaism simply has diminished in our Judaism is that sense of shlichut, the sense of, I’m there at significant personal sacrifice on a whole variety of fronts, including sacrifice of my own family’s Jewish life and communal life because the Jewish people need me. 

So I’m curious, like, if that’s a piece of you and whether you want to see that become more normative for other non-Chabad rabbis for these places, and whether you think it’s possible.

Rachel: So I tell this story often that when my wife and I were on the airplane from JFK moving up to Maine, I gave her a copy of Sue Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army. And I said, this is our roadmap. This is how we’re going to succeed. And, you know, look, I’m a woman and I’m gay, which means that there’s always going to be a certain distance between me and Orthodox Judaism. 

But on the other hand, I need to give credit where it’s due, both in terms of tactics and also in terms of shared theology. What drives me every morning in this work is actually a belief that is expressed by Chabad, which is that every Jew and every mitzvah counts, and that my ultimate objective in everything that I do is to get more Jews doing more mitzvahs connected to the Jewish community for the sake of redemption. 

I believe that. And the fact that I say that openly and that I said that openly as a rabbinical student and I continue to as a rabbi puts me outside of, in many ways, the mainstream of the liberal Jewish community, but it is the core of my faith. And I think if it weren’t the core of my faith, I don’t think I could do this work. 

And there are parallels between the ways in which I think of redemption and the way in which some of my Chabad colleagues do too. I do share a messianic faith. I do believe we can tip the scales of history through more Jews doing more mitzvahs. And ultimately I do want to be buried in the land of Israel, right? So in that case, like my faith is quite traditional. 

One of the things we have a rabbinical apprenticeship program through the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, we bring students from Hebrew College, RRC, JTS, to Maine to work in small-town communities.

And what’s so interesting, boundaries are an important part of our work. But what I found in the seminaries is that there’s often seated among these students, this sense of fear that our congregants are going to violate our boundaries, that we need to be very protective of ourselves and our time, right? Which is all very true. 

But on the other hand, I think the other piece of it that’s left out that has been critical to, in many ways, my success is yes, and I love these people. I am here to serve them as they are. It is a blessing to be invited into their homes. It is a blessing to have them in my home. It is a blessing that my children have this community of adults aside from my wife and I that they can rely upon. and turn to as resources. 

And so even though, yes, I do need to be aware of professional boundaries, I don’t approach the people that I serve with fear or from a scarcity mentality. I approach them as God placed me in Maine to serve these people. I need to connect with them with love in order to inspire them to do mitzvahs and to live a rich, authentic life myself. I think that piece of the rabbinate needs to be articulated more clearly and more positively.

Yehuda: I just want to stop that and like run it on the loop. I think that what you’re talking about has, I didn’t know we were going in this direction, but I think the way you described the remnant could have huge implications for the pipeline crisis. So we’ll talk offline about that. I think that was really powerful. 

Let’s talk about scalability. What are the things that big-city Jews might learn from small-town Jews? And I’ll give you an example that I remember from growing up, which always felt to me like the place where necessity could give birth to opportunity. So I remember going a bunch of times as a kid to Charlottesville, Virginia for Shabbat because my uncle lived down there. My uncle, of blessed memory, lived down there. And Charlottesville has one shul in the center of town. 

Actually, it is now a part of American Jewish history because of the protests and riots that took place in Charlottesville, and the synagogue was at the center. So it was not a coincidence. And for years now, I think it probably still is the case, but I will get fact-checked if it’s not. Because you had one synagogue in the town, they had effectively struck a compromise where the Friday night services were according to the reform liturgy and the Saturday morning services were conservative. 

Now, part of that is because it coded a certain way. You would have a much higher chance that reform Jews would come out Friday night, and the only people who would come out Saturday morning would be conservative Jews. But in practical terms, you had a lot of overlap between the people who were going to go to shul both times. And I always felt like, okay, that’s necessity. You’re not going to be able to run separate minyanim that are reform and conservative for both services. 

But what an interesting opportunity that creates for the members of this community to learn two liturgies, to be able to figure out how to sit comfortably in both, and how to make use of shared resources to build an actually tighter-knit Jewish community. Now you’d never see that happen in a big city, but I’m curious what are the other types of examples you might think of where the necessity of what kinds of choices you have to make as a small-town Jewish community could actually bear fruit or some lessons or some models for Jewish life in bigger cities.

Rachel: Absolutely, this is a core part of our work and I think the greatest blessing of small-town Jewish life is that necessity forces us to compromise and be with people who are different than us. And that’s the most important Torah, not only that I want to cultivate among my congregants, but if you know about the work and the history of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, it began at its very inception as a collaboration between Colby College’s Jewish Studies, at that time, program, Colby College Hillel, and Beth Israel Congregation. All of those three Jewish institutions in Waterville were tiny and not achieving their potential. 

And so when we think about the ways in which Jews self-segregate or self-sort, denomination is one of those ways. The other ways in which we see Jews self-sort or self-segregate is according to political beliefs and according to generation. And I think that is profoundly insidious and very dangerous. 

One of the greatest challenges of my work that is also one of the greatest opportunities, and I think I’ve come to navigate this better over time, but it’s never perfect, is that at one of my services, you can find a Black military veteran who voted for Trump with a white Ashkenazi professor who loves Bernie Sanders, both of whom own guns, along with a Colby student from Westchester who’s questioning their relationship with Zionism, along with somebody on the football team who thinks that Birthright is the be all and end all of what it means to be Jewish. You will find all of those people at my minyan and they all need to get along and say Amen. And they all need to find something to talk about over the Stouffer’s mac and cheese at the potluck.

And I think that is good for America and good for the Jewish people. Because when I do something like Torah on tap or when my colleague who actually does this very well, my colleague, Lauren Cohen Fisher, who is a Colby alumna who does Israel education, she has created something really beautiful around Israel discourse, first with Colby and now around the state of Maine. Our conversations are better and more interesting, because all those people need to sit at that same table at Mainly Brews in downtown Waterville or over the same kiddush at Beth Israel. How much more interesting that conversation than if you’re at a 20s and 30s event in Park Slope where everybody is basically this different shades of the same millimeter of discourse? Or if you’re at the Gush and everybody is basically, you know, tiny shades different.

So I think some of the discourse that we have is fascinating and interesting, but I also think it’s critical for the work of healthy American citizenship, beyond what it means for the Jewish people, because the synagogue is one of the few places where you are forced to be together with people who have fundamentally different understandings of reality from you, but this idea of the Jewish people, no matter the extent to which it is imagined or verifiable, that idea is strong enough to keep people at the table. 

And even if they are saying different things around the table, they’re still at the same table eating that same mac and cheese. I think that’s some of the most important thing, that’s one of the most important elements of my work.

Yehuda: Why are they coming? And it’s a facile question, but,

Rachel: Yeah.

Yehuda: You would imagine that the mythology of assimilation and the hypothesis of where the American Jewish community is headed would suggest that people are disappearing, but it sounds like they’re not. They’re showing up. 

And I’m curious, what are the motivations around attachment that go beyond the purely anthropological people, like community? They have heritage, they have memory. All of that I know is true. And I’m curious if you could give some window into it. And maybe also give us a window into your own rabbinate of what it is that you’re bringing to them that they’re seeking.

Rachel: Sure. So one of the features, small-town Jewish life in Hawaii, Chico, California, Maine, they’re different in that they’re rooted in the places where they are, but there are certain elements that they all have in common. 

One of those is the number of people in our communities who are Jews by choice, people who’ve converted. That’s one of the reasons why I really worked very hard to raise the money to build a mikvah in the basement of my synagogue that’s currently under construction. A lot of the growth in my synagogue is individuals who are either raised without faith or were raised in religious Christian backgrounds who’ve chosen Judaism. 

And I think that they choose Judaism because they want something that is ritualistic, that is deeply rooted. but has enough space for questioning that they feel more at home. A lot of the people who’ve converted in central Maine, both at my congregation and that of my colleague, Rabbi Erica Asch, there are a lot of GLBTQ folks who are finding a home in Judaism. I think that’s nationwide. That’s not just in small towns. 

But then we also have people raised in very Christian backgrounds that want something that feels authentic and that’s from the ritual, but has breathing room and doesn’t have Jesus, right? And that’s where a lot of those Jews by choice are coming in. 

We also have the people who were born and raised in Waterville, who this is their family shul. Their shul is where their family congregates, and that is why Beth Israel is their synagogue. 

The last element of it are the Hillel students. My synagogue would not have survived if it weren’t for the activation of Jewish students on campus to lead and be active members of the local synagogue. We are pulling in between 40 to 60 kids every single week for Shabbat dinner at Colby College, which has a student body of about 2,200 and has a Jewish population of probably about 200. There are a few Hillels that are reaching that percentage that regularly of their students. 

When you ask students at Colby Hillel, what makes your Hillel special? They love that it provides them the opportunity to connect with Waterville in this way. And I think something very interesting is happening. There is a mental health crisis, there is a crisis of meaning among Gen Z students, and they are very much searching for ritual, for community, for mentorship, for work that is genuinely meaningful that isn’t constructed. 

When my Hebrew students read Torah or chant Megillah at my synagogue, when they make the charoset side by side with my wife for Pesach, that is not invented work. That is not a leadership cohort that you can put on your resume. They understand on a very deep level that if they don’t do that labor for the local Jewish community, it will wither on the vine. And because they know that they are essential in that process, It gives them meaning and a sense of purpose. 

It also gives them a family when they’re in college, which they really desperately need. And so all of those things, they’re different motivations, but I think people need hope. They need meaning, they need connection, and they also need a place where they can discuss things that matter in a way that is healthy.

And I think our synagogue and our Jewish community has been able to provide those things. It hasn’t been easy, but I think we’re doing it better than most. And what that has resulted in is a synagogue that when I came in had 19 dues-paying members and now has 80. So we are a growing conservative community in the set in the middle of Maine. And I think all of those different motivations come to the fore.

Yehuda: You know when I was taking my oldest son to do college tours, and I won’t go into detail where we went, that’s for him to sort out. But we actually went to see one large state school and then we went to see a school that famously has an extremely large Jewish community in the Boston area. 

And what was extraordinary was how quickly he picked up on the choice that was available to him because we went to see the state school we got this great tour from a very Jewishly involved student in a Hillel that is very active, but with a very small core group of kids. And she said on the tour, listen, we’d love for you to come here. And one of the things that coming here will mean is that you’re going to be in the WhatsApp group and you’re going to have to show up to Minyan a couple of times a week. Because if we don’t, you know, there’s kids saying Kaddish and there’s adults who are around, you just have to. 

And my son got it. And he realized that those are two doors of Jewish life to enter. One, a big Jewish community where your needs are totally met and you’re not necessary.

Rachel: Correct.

Yehuda: Versus a small Jewish community that can sometimes feel like a little burdensome and a little bit, if you don’t love all those people, the 25 other kids who are coming, or 40 who are coming Friday night, that’s gonna be hard. but you’re gonna be needed. 

And I don’t know, obviously people are gonna sort themselves in terms of those choices, my son and many other prospective college students. But it feels to me like there’s something ripe about being able to showcase to the Jewish community more broadly that these are two different entry ways that we should be cultivating, not as like a, there’s one map for Jewish communal life, but what if we were able to help, and those are just two, there’s probably seven.

Rachel: Yep.

Yehuda: What are the different ways in which we could help Jews who are searching and maybe even don’t know that they’re searching to know that these are all of the various doors in which a person could enter?

Rachel: Yeah, and I don’t think small-town Jewish life or small-college Jewish life is for everyone. I think that there are some students who really do want to be catered to in a certain way and fabulous. It’s great that those opportunities exist. 

What I find really interesting, and I think that this is going to be a long-term challenge of my work, because I’ve been in Waterville for 13 years. I have no plans to leave, so this is long-term lifelong work for me and my team. When I talk to some of the Colby alums who are now living in New York, they always come to our Colby events when we’re fundraising or bringing people together and I say to them, are you going to shul? And these are kids that came to Beth Israel every week that made Shabbos. And I’m like, no, Rabbi, we’re not going to shul. 

And I was like, you’re in New York. I mean, there’s,

Yehuda: Go to shul.

Rachel: Go to Shul. Why are you going to Shul in New York, but you came in Waterville? And they’ll look at me and they said, because I knew I was needed, and I’m not needed here, which by the way, I don’t even think is true. 

Yehuda: No, it’s not true.

Rachel: I think that there are a lot of synagogues in New York that need active people in their 20s and 30s.

Yehuda: Yeah, we’ll take them. 

Rachel: We’ll take them, but what’s interesting is that from their perspective, you know, there isn’t Rabbi Isaacs on the bima who waves to them when they come in, and they know that I’m taking note that they were there. 

And I think that that’s an interesting thing for both me to think about because I have a lifelong investment in these students who I’ve invested so much in, but also for the Jewish community more broadly, which is if you’re in a large institution, how do you communicate that nonetheless, every Jew that comes matters and is serving the Jewish people? And I think that’s something to work on.

Yehuda: I imagine that some rabbis and probably lay leaders hearing you say proudly that you have 80 dues-paying members gasped in horror. Can you talk a little bit about the financial model and of what’s viable for the sustainability of synagogues in small towns? Because you just do the math of what 80 membership dues will get you, and it’s not a lot. So I would just love to understand that as one of the obstacles around building small town Jewish life.

Rachel: Yeah, I’ll really blow your mind. A family membership to my synagogue is $750, and an individual membership is 375, and Hebrew school’s $100 a year. 

Yehuda: Well, thank God you had those Lebanese Christians buy you the water fountain.

Rachel: Exactly. See, it’s good to have friends.

Yehuda: Exactly.

Rachel: But I think the way in which my synagogue works, and look, you know, we’re not running a profit. We make ends meet. The way in which it works, there are two important points to bring to bear. One is I am employed by two different places, which means that I am neither a full-time Colby employee nor a full-time synagogue employee. Both institutions understand that I am shared, but neither institution, at least when we first started this work, could afford me alone, right? 

So the synagogue could not have a rabbi if 60% of my salary were not covered by the college, and they also provide health, dental, and retirement benefits for me and my entire family. There is no way they could retract or retain me without that institutional partnership, which means they understand they need to share. And, you know, so that’s a crucial thing. 

Now, is 50% of my time Colby, 50% synagogue? No, what I’ve tried to do is just make my work about serving the Jewish people in and from Waterville. And insofar there are people who do not believe in that model or wish that I split up my time differently? They’re unhappy, and sometimes they leave and the people who believe in that mission stay. 

The other thing that I’ll say is, how does Chabad succeed? They don’t have membership dues. We really have a medieval financial model at my Jewish community, which is we have a parnas. We have a family with many branches that views it as their sacred work in this world to support Waterville, Maine, the synagogue being one part of it. They support the synagogue, they support Colby, they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into renovating downtown Waterville to reverse the post-industrial decline that has affected our community since the 1980s. Without that family and the generosity that they have inspired, this could not work.

Yehuda: Yeah, can’t work.

Rachel: And I think that this is really important. I just wanna say one other thing about this Yehuda, which is that when most small-town Jews, their children rarely stay in those small. Once they have resources and go to elite colleges, they move to places like New York, LA, what have you, and their philanthropic dollars often move with them. 

One of the unique things about the families that support me is that they have instilled in their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, you have a familial and sacred obligation to the town where our family’s workers hailed from. And therefore, you have to retain a personal and philanthropic connection to Waterville, Maine forever. And actually, there is language written into their foundation that their money has to stay within the communities where their workers help them create their wealth. 

So I want us as an American Jewish community to think about that because a lot of times I’ll go to places like New York and LA to fundraise or tell my story and they’ll say, you know, my family was like that, but then we left. And so what does it look like for any Jewish philanthropists here to think about as wealth has become increasingly concentrated in 12 major urban areas, to reconnect with those small towns where your family was from and where that wealth and that labor was cultivated and to reinvest in those communities like Waterville, Maine, not just for the future of the Jewish people. but also for the health of American democracy.

Yehuda: I was reading a little bit about population trends and migration trends that are taking place in America more generally. And as is almost always the case, Jewish demographic phenomena are driven by American demographic phenomena.

Rachel: Yes.

Yehuda: The major population migrations are taking place basically southward and westward, Florida and to the west. A lot of this gets screwed up by the pandemic. Some people who might have been moving stayed in place. Other people might have moved quicker than they thought and perhaps gotten to some intermediate location that they never expected to go. I think a lot more people in our, what I know from my experience and my wife’s experience running a day school in Manhattan was that a lot more people wound up in New Jersey faster than they expected to, simply because of the pandemic. So it’s not clear how the pandemic is totally gonna alter the migration pattern. 

But I’m curious what you’re watching for. Most of that migration is still going to take place to cities, and there are a handful of cities that are the beneficiaries of this migration in Florida, in a little bit California and Texas. But what are you watching for in terms of preparedness for the possibility that this migration will affect small-town Jewish life?

Rachel: Maine was one of the few blue states, because it’s really a purple state, that actually gained population during the pandemic. We had a lot of people moving to Portland and the surrounding area during the pandemic for quality of life. And we even saw folks moving who couldn’t afford Portland coming up to places like Brunswick, like Waterville, like Augusta. 

So what I’m looking for We are seeing more Jews moving to Maine actually, which is a sentence that I would have never imagined coming out of my mouth when I came here 13 years ago. There are two to three reasons why. 

One was the pandemic, people wanted space. The second is we are already getting and will continue to get climate refugees. This is a real thing that’s happening. Maine has clean air and clean water and soil where you can grow healthy food. More and more people are gonna come to Maine. I have people in my congregation that came from Texas and Arizona. They said, those states aren’t gonna be habitable soon. I wanted my own water source. I wanted clean soil. 

And the last thing is quality of life. Everybody’s searching for work-life balance. In Maine, the business day starts at 7:30 and it ends at 4:30. And there’s an understanding that you leave work at work. With the exception of Chabad, all of the rabbis in Maine are not from Maine. And yet, most of us who have come here have stayed, even though we came from major Jewish communities. And if you ask us why, we’ll say our communities support us in being active participants in our child’s lives and understand that we need to rest and have time for ourselves.

And when you get back to that rabbinic pipeline issue, you have a state of very fulfilled, and I think that’s because that main culture allows us to serve the Jewish people while also being, at least by clergy standards, healthy and rested.

Yehuda: I’ve never in my life thought to move to Maine, but you make a compelling case. And you know what’s more than that? I would say, a real point, a few weeks ago, I interviewed Rabbi Elia Cosgrove, and I made an unfortunate analogy that a lot of people called me on, in which I referenced, it was really an analogy to the Yankees. It wasn’t about Jews in Minnesota, but what had happened over the past year was that two New York Yankees had failed as Yankees and then got shipped off to Minnesota and did great.

And I was making a point about like what it takes in certain like high-profile synagogues and like what’s the relationship between those major centers and elsewhere and a number of Minnesota Jews were really mad and I apologize, I was not disparaging Minnesota Judaism. 

But I hear in your voice, the way you’re talking about it is you fall in love with a place that you’re in and it becomes,

Rachel: Yes.

Yehuda: You become an advocate and almost a recruiter. And it sounds like you’re doing in your life, you’re a recruiter for the Jewish people in Maine and in some ways a recruiter to more people to move to Maine. 

Let me ask you one last question because you’ve been generous with your time today. It’s just, it’s kind of a quirk of this, which is, I’m really fascinated, you alluded to the job share, but it’s more than job share, right? It feels almost as though the university is invested in Jewish life in Waterville, Maine, and the Jewish community is invested in the university. 

Rachel: Correct.

Yehuda: And it’s particularly striking. because there is so much emerging conflict between Jewishness as it lives on campus and the broader Jewish community. Many academics draw a very clean line between what they do in the university and what they do in the Jewish community. I’ve seen this flourish in a few places. Charleston, College of Charleston has the same model. 

I’m curious whether there is any friction that emerges between the priorities of the university and the priorities of the Jewish community. But more importantly, again, whether there’s something that could be learned here that could help the larger context of higher education and its relationship to the Jewish community, even in larger urban areas. I feel like this kernel of something here.

Rachel: There is. I mean, the chair of our Jewish Studies Department is Dr. Rabbi David Friedenreich, who is also a conservative rabbi. So this is a Jewish Studies program where we have one pure Ph.D., one Jewish communal educator, and two conservative rabbis. And David has a Ph.D. in addition, but we see these synergies, we have to be very careful. We had the board of overseers just review our program and they said, we were amazed by the ways in which you could leverage the strengths of Jewish life and learning, one against the other, while still maintaining appropriate academic boundaries. 

Part of the reason we can do that is what we have found is that maintaining appropriate academic boundaries specifically around Israel, although not exclusively, actually makes our religious life healthier. 

So we just had our Maine Conference for Jewish life. We had 300 people coming to Waterville, Maine for a weekend of intensive Jewish learning. And Professor Cohen-Fischers, she did a history of maps of the partition between Israelis and the Palestinians, Israel-Palestine, whatever language you want to use. And she cultivated the discussion in a way that was, we are going to talk about this in a way that is constructive and healthy and that doesn’t privilege one value over another, but I’m gonna help you engage with the material so that you can better articulate what you believe around a common table that allows for a deeper engagement with the material and allows you to better articulate your values in this very tense discussion and helps build community even though we know there isn’t going to be consensus. So there you see the academic Jewish studies structuring actually helping our synagogues not self-immolate over a difficult question. 

The same thing, our Jewish studies has a beit midrash, where we have 40 to 50 kids every other week, half Jewish, half non, discussing things like same-sex marriage, like transgender identity, like friendship, like privilege, really deep, deep issues. When you have this structure of, we’re going to discuss this and explore together without expecting consensus, you end up with healthier synagogues, not just healthier Hillels. So that’s something that’s interesting. 

The other thing is that Colby College is deeply invested in the success of Waterville and this has been a very clear priority that has been set out by our president David Green. He knows that unless downtown Waterville is successful, Colby can never be successful, because if the faculty don’t want to live in Waterville and if the students don’t want to hang out in Waterville, we are not going to attract and retain the best faculty, staff, and students. 

So if we want the best Jewish faculty, staff, and students, we need a strong synagogue. If we need the best faculty, staff, and students, we need a place to get good coffee. We need many different things. But he looks at Waterville as an ecosystem and has been unorthodoxly generous with the college’s resources. in making Waterville thrive in many different capacities, Jewish life just being one of them. 

And if you have leaders that actually see their academic leadership tied to the fate of the communities in which they’re operating, they know that they have to have an investment in healthy communities, healthy places of worship. And I will say this is where we’ve distinguished ourselves. Yes, we have Shabbat, yes, we have high holiday services, everybody knows I’m a Zionist, which means does that make me the most popular person on the faculty? You can imagine. 

However, what I will say is Jewish life has distinguished itself as a place where students can have healthy discourse across difference and as such, the Jewish studies department has become an interesting model about how to have healthy discourse. Now, how many places around the country can say, my college looks to the Jewish studies department as a place to have hard conversations? Maybe if that were a little bit more common, maybe if more Hillels like ours were physically and financially tied to every other minority ethnic group as opposed to set apart in a separate building with a multimillion dollar budget, right? The more integrated we’ve been and the more we’ve been a model that actually encourages and facilitates healthy discourse around difference, all of a sudden we’ve gone from being a headache to being a unique asset. 

So I think there is something to be learned from David and Lauren’s leadership in particular on this and the ways in which I’ve been able to translate their academic leadership into the broader Jewish community of Maine.

Yehuda: Well, thank you all for listening to our show today and special thanks to our guest this week, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller, Shalhevet Schwartz, and Yoav Friedman. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president for communications and creative and our music is provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at 

We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about, opinions about Maine, or if you have comments on this episode, please write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to the show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening. 

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