Rachel Alexander is an alumna of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class XIII). Rachel is currently the Midwest Regional Consultant for Jewish Federations of North America. Rachel can be reached at Rachel.Alexander@JewishFederations.org.
When I was interviewed for the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, I was asked if I would like to be entrepreneurial and create my own nonprofit or, if I was willing to work in the Belly of the Beast. As a passionate young leader ready to fix the Jewish world, I was eager to share my knowledge and skills by creating something new, as I had when I created Gesher City to connect young adults to the Jewish community.
When I completed my MPA at Columbia in 2002, I got a job working at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. In this capacity, I was in the center of the Belly of the Beast. Organizing fundraisers for the Ladies of Teaneck and Men’s Nite Out fundraisers with Bob Costas did not seem like my version of building Jewish community. However, I learned amazing fundraising skills such as how to ask a donor to increase his or her- gift by $5,000 and how to solicit a bank for a $25,000 corporate sponsorship.
This year I fell in love with a man who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. I took a huge leap of faith and moved out to the Midwest after living my entire life on the northeast corridor. Spoiler alert – we got engaged shortly after I moved here, and we are planning a June wedding in Madison.
I was not sure what kinds of jobs I would be able to find in the Midwest that would utilize my knowledge of Jewish history, Talmud and understanding of contemporary Jewish life. Because I lived in New York for 11 years, I was sure that I was leaving the epicenter of the Jewish world and becoming an early pioneer to settle Jews in “Fly Over Country”.
In my new position as the Midwest Regional Consultant for the Jewish Federation movement, it is my responsibility to build community in towns with fewer than 2,000 Jews. I am working with dozens of cities from Aberdeen, SD to Wooster, OH. I love hearing the stories of the Jewish leadership in these communities. I have met dozens of people who have been supporting the state of Israel since its inception in 1948. Many of them feel that they were responsible for establishing the state, and they are going to continue making donations to the Jewish Federation to ensure that it stays strong. I have also met dozens of people who believe that going to Temple each week and donating to the Jewish Federation is the definition of being a Jew.
As the Jewish community in New York has become incredibly segregated for each niche community, it has lost this basic definition of being Jewish. In New York I had hundreds of ways to express my Judaism. I could attend a New Israel Fund cocktail party, volunteer with JCorps, participate in the Israeli Film Festival, work out at a JCC, go to a kosher restaurant, and protest at an Embassy on any given week. What I am finding in Manitowoc, Wisconsin is that all Jews attend the one Temple. They do not need to “do anything” to feel Jewish because all of their neighbors know they are “the Jew” on the block.
Because of my day school upbringing in Providence, Rhode Island, I wonder if I should share with them the various ways to interpret the Torah portion. Perhaps they should have intense dialogue about women’s rights in Israel. They could be organizing cultural events that celebrate Yemenite, Argentinean and Italian Jewish customs. However, they are happy to attend services using the same tunes every week for generations. They are comfortable with their 100% supportive relationship with the people of Israel. Most of the people I am meeting like things exactly the way they are and have been for decades.
During my visits in Illinois and Indiana, I learned about the proud history of the Rust Belt. The Jews who moved here at the turn of the century to sell junk, later became the generation that sold scrap metal. I solicited one family for $100,000 because their background in scrap metal enabled them to have a thriving recycling business. You may think that there is not a lot of wealth in these towns. However, many of the Jews who stayed in their hometowns are incredibly successful.
As I am preparing my speech for the Jews of Kenosha, Wisconsin tomorrow, I am thinking that these communities have a lot that they can teach the Jews of New York. Their passion for Judaism, their connection to community, and their values of donating to the Jewish Federation are qualities that I rarely found in my previous work. I am so much happier to be working in the Midwest where corn is growing on my street and the smell of cows is ever-present. I am incredibly passionate about building the Jewish communities in the Heartland and learning what they can teach me about being Jewish.