Small Town Jewish Life Takes Center Stage

By Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

In my final year of rabbinical school, a leader from the Conservative movement shared an alarming assessment, “The future of the American Jewish community is in 12 major cities, and we need to find a way to let the rest go.” As an emerging American Jewish leader, predictions of demographic gloom were not novel for me and generally no longer evoked a strong response. However, in this instance, I was simultaneously livid and inspired. For the previous five months I had been working as a student rabbi in a small post-industrial college town: Waterville, Maine. I fell in love with a small town Jewish community because it fully realized the core Jewish values that brought me to the rabbinate: deep personal commitment, a fighting spirit to raise Jewish children, and an unshakable dedication to hospitality. This congregation was also located in a town where 80 percent of school-aged children qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Whether he knew it or not, this leader was not just proposing a cost-effective strategy for our movement’s future, he was making a claim about who deserves Jewish life. In effect, if not in intent, he claimed that you must live in an economically prosperous area in order to enjoy the support and services of Jewish community. His dismissal of communities like Waterville inspired my wife, Mel, and me to begin our life here, and forge a path that made small town Jewish life sustainable, vibrant, and relevant.

From the beginning I was fortunate to have mentors, partners, and benefactors at Colby College (also located in Waterville) that made our work possible. Dr. Rabbi David Freidenreich, chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Colby, joined forces with then provost, Dr. Lori Kletzer, to create a joint faculty-chaplain position that would allow me to serve Jewish students on campus, increase Jewish Studies offerings, and serve the local community. Not long after, Beth Israel Congregation hired Mel to serve as educator, caterer, and administrator of the shul. Their investments not only invigorated Jewish life at Colby and in Waterville, but also laid the groundwork for a sea change in Jewish life throughout Maine. It was the first step that allowed David and I to launch the Center for Small Town Jewish Life (CSTJL) at Colby College, an academic center committed to providing superlative Jewish learning and invigorating Jewish life in small towns nationally through institutional and multigenerational collaboration.

Forging partnerships among the Jewish Studies program, the chaplaincy, and the synagogue facilitated a deep, synergistic collaboration that created a critical mass of people and resources for excellent Jewish programming. Our core values of economic accessibility, dynamic learning, and collaboration across institutional and generational lines have animated all of the center’s programs since its inception. Our keystone program, the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, brings together all of Maine’s synagogues and Jewish institutions for a weekend of Jewish life and learning that rivals gatherings in Manhattan or Tel Aviv.

Drawing upon global resources and the participation of Jews from across the region, the CSTJL shows what is possible when we convene small communities strategically to fortify Jewish life. After a presentation at the Jewish Federation of North America’s Generational Assembly, this model inspired another community – the Jewish Federation/JCC of San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Hillel – to join forces for the first annual Central Coast Festival of Jewish Learning.

The center has grown significantly since its founding with the strong support of Colby’s president, David Greene, transformative grants from the Covenant Foundation and Hillel International, and the generous support of local and Colby donors. Our staff has grown to include our Assistant Director, Rabbi Erica Asch; a full-time program director; and an administrative specialist, bringing together top local talent across denominational lines. We employ eight undergraduate fellows of all faiths and backgrounds who forge ever deeper roots throughout the state of Maine and acquire invaluable tools of community leadership. Rabbinical students of all denominations now come to Maine for mentorship in serving small communities, and bring fresh ideas and energy to our synagogues and Hillels.

According to the JFNA, there are over 100,000 Jews living in their network of independent communities who fall outside the catchment area of major federations. All serious Jewish leaders must ask themselves, will we leave those Jews behind? In an age of increased income inequality and political polarization, small town Jews are both increasingly vulnerable and valuable. We are the faces and messengers of Torah in an America that feels left behind and is increasingly susceptible to retrograde strains of antisemitism. However, antisemitism should not be the only, or even the primary, motivation for supporting our communities. Many of our world’s most inspiring Jewish leaders share a common bond: they were raised in small town synagogues. Small town Jewish communities have always demanded elbow grease, innovative solutions, and a determined entrepreneurial spirit. If you look at who is leading major Jewish organizations today, you would be surprised by how many of them come from towns like Waterville, bringing their determination and hard won Jewish knowledge back to the centers of Jewish life.

The future of American Jewish Life will continue to look more like Waterville than the Upper West Side. The majority of small town Jews have hailed from intermarried families for decades, have developed strategies for sustaining community with small numbers and limited resources for centuries, and continue to produce many of our community’s leaders. It is time for the mainstream Jewish community to pay attention. We are not the periphery, we are the frontier – and the future.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs is Director, Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College.