Going Beyond Enriching the Enriched
To be a rabbi in the small town of Waterville, Maine where 80 percent of children are on federal food assistance is a different kind of work than I was ever used to. I’ve had to get used to working in a congregation where families come to me and tell me that buying health insurance is going to break their family financially. Even though I’m paid less than many of my colleagues, I feel guilty for how comfortably we live. To serve a congregation of farmers, policemen, border guards, public school teachers, and a few professionals makes one think differently about giving a sermon about privilege in the Jewish community. They, like most Mainers, are struggling to get by, and by virtue of living on the edge of poverty, are largely invisible and treated as dispensable by the larger Jewish community. It wasn’t that long ago when a leader of my movement stood up in front of a group of rabbinical students, who like me, were serving small communities in their fifth year of rabbinical school, and said, “The future of Jewish life in America is in 12 major cities. We just need to accept letting the rest go.” This man forgot his audience, but his honesty was important and clarifying. It made me confront a core question in a very personal fashion – will I accept letting this community, and communities like them, just go?
I decided that I couldn’t. And maybe that was not the most strategic or profitable career choice, but I do believe it is a one that upholds my end of our covenant with God.
Working so intimately with a small community and the Hillel at Colby College has allowed my wife and me to make transformative change in people’s lives that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. The synagogue has grown from 25 to 60 families, and the Hillel from 5 students to weekly attendance of 50 at Shabbat. We have created a model of an integrated, multi-generational community where Hillel students are our bnai mitzvah tutors, they are our high holiday Torah readers, and they perform our annual Purim schpiel with the kids in the Hebrew school and their parents. Our congregants have begun celebrating Shabbat at home, hosting Hillel students and serving as their Waterville Jewish families. When our synagogue flooded last winter, the entire congregation came and saved the basement and our library by bailing the water out of the shul with their own hands. The small town synagogue I serve and the small Hillel I advise may not have the most people or the greatest financial resources, but they live Torah, understand what it is to hold the life of a community on their shoulders, and as a result, have developed strong, rich, unshakable commitments to Judaism and the Jewish people.
As a Jewish community, I believe strongly that we have a responsibility to go beyond enriching the enriched. Financial and spiritual needs also exist within the Jewish community. Shouldn’t we, as Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumni be on the front lines of serving the least served, at least for a portion of our careers? Trust me, I know how difficult it is to be Jewish in an isolated area without the community and resources available in those twelve, expensive, major urban centers. But then again, with all that we have been given, we have the ability to create vibrant Jewish life, not just enjoy what has been built and sustained by others.
Of course, rich folks need rabbis just as much as poor folks, and providing the greatest good for the greatest number always makes the most sense from a policy standpoint. But serving small, rural and resource-poor communities is something we should think about for our own professional paths and when making decisions about how resources are allocated on a national level. At a time when we are all so aware of how many Jews are opting out of Jewish life, I think we need to remind ourselves always: every Jew counts, every person counts, every mitzvah counts. And let us act accordingly.
Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 19), was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the Jewish Chaplain and Adjunct Faculty Member at Colby College and the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, ME. Click here to read an announcement about a recent significant investment in Jewish life in Maine by the Alfond Foundation. Rachel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.