20 Tishrei 5781/October 8, 2020
This year, we have three sukkot in Waterville, Maine, but we are not quite sure how long they will stay standing. In the short number of days between Yom Kippur and the fall harvest festival, we rushed to build our sukkot as early as possible. With amazing efficiency and superhuman energy, fueled by the joy of the success of the High Holidays, our Hillel students and staff put up our sukkot the day after Yom Kippur. Though we knew there would be some much-needed rain between our sukkah-building days and the start of Sukkot, we had no idea how fierce the incoming storm or how powerful the gusts of wind would be. And so the next morning, despite the best planning and most sincere intentions, all three sukkot were down for the count, a mess of mangled metal, strewn blue tarps, and rolled bamboo mats. We waited for the storm to pass, and rebuilt the sukkot in time for our festival events. And no matter how many times they fall, we will rebuild our temporary shelters to make space for joy, community, and learning together.
Many Jewish professionals wrote and spoke about the strange resonance of Yom Kippur amid the pandemic—the alignment of a holiday that makes us rehearse for our deaths with a pandemic that lays bare our vulnerability. However, it may be the Sukkot festival that best gives us the ritual to mirror the state of our world today.
Sukkot is a holiday during which we are obligated to create makeshift, temporary structures, designed to make us feel exposed, vulnerable, and grateful. Also known as Z’man Simchatenu (the season of our rejoicing), Sukkot is a festival where we read Ecclesiastes, one of the most pessimistic and nihilistic books included in the Jewish canon. Ecclesiastes explores the hundreds of ways in which life can seem like worthless vanity, and yet it concludes with a realistic and beautiful affirmation of faith and gratitude for all we have, along with a firm directive to enjoy every blessing now, before it’s too late. The wisdom of Sukkot offers a deep, timely insight: it is when we feel the most unsure and exposed that we can be open enough to appreciate what we have and find joy in the gifts of the moment.
We have seen this wisdom manifest in so many ways over the past few months in Maine. My colleagues and friends across the state—from Bangor to Biddeford—all reported much higher High Holiday attendance than usual. We experienced Zoom rooms replete with unusually connected communities and tents filled to socially distanced capacity, and we felt gratitude for the sound of the shofar and the bright reds, yellows, and oranges of turning foliage on unseasonably warm autumn days. At the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, our staff is energized by the enthusiastic interest and gratitude for all of our statewide online programming. This spring and summer it included:
- A multigenerational Shavuot beit midrash with learning led by Colby student Sonia Lachter ‘22, and prayers led by Rabbi Lily Solochek of Rockland.
- The Maine Conference for Jewish Life that included hundreds of participants online and featured a kosher camping tutorial by Brian Kresge, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor; elevating music from Feliza and Or Zohar of northern Israel; a film from the Maine Jewish Film Festival that knitted together contemporary hip-hop with a Holocaust survivor’s story; and a culminating concert by the soulful Nefesh Mountain.
- A statewide collaboration for a meaningful and moving Tisha B’Av, that included Eicha (Lamentations) readers from Biddeford to Waterville, shared artwork from Readfield, historical teachings from the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, and Torah learning from rabbis throughout the state.
- Two weeks of daily children’s programming, teaching Hebrew, Jewish values, and history to dozens of excited and engaged kids. This was led by Melanie Weiss of Waterville, Leah Kresge of Bangor, and Rabbi Erica Asch of Augusta, with guest appearances by Rebbitzen Lisa Mayer of Auburn.
- A lay-led women’s Rosh Hodesh Elul program facilitated by Temple Shalom in Auburn that incorporated women’s leadership from around the state, making room for meaningful conversations about teshuvah, along with song, poetry, and the sound of the shofar.
- An exuberant and joyful statewide Selichot service that brought together klezmer music from Rabbi Sruli Dresdner and Rebbetzin Lisa Mayer (and family) of Temple Shalom in Auburn, transformative Torah teaching and hazzanut from Rabbi Bill Siemers of Beth Israel in Bangor, and the beautiful leadership and shofar skills of Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El in Portland.
- An incredible compilation of globally produced, tailored-for-Maine High Holiday resources that shared spirit, meaning, insight, and comfort to hundreds throughout our state.
Rabbi Erica Asch shares more about these programs in the “Updates from The Center for Small Town Jewish Life” tab above.
The winds of this moment are unpredictable and strong, but all of us in Maine continue putting the scaffolding of our Jewish lives back together time and time again, often building it stronger than it was previously. We are heartened that whether virtually or in person, we find the times and spaces to huddle together, and provide one another with the comfort, context, inspiration, and support to be strong and courageous in our hearts, and to make it through these challenging times.
We accomplish this work with your support and participation. I hope you will join us for one of our upcoming programs, no matter where you are in the country or world at this moment. We recognize that the world is filled with many needs at this time, but if you have the capacity, please help us continue our work in strengthening and building the Jewish communities of Maine. Every dollar helps us increase Jewish literacy, connection, resiliency, and leadership in our state, and showcases to the larger Jewish world what is possible when we work together.
Chag Sameach to All,
Rabbi Rachel M. Isaacs
Director, Center for Small Town Jewish Life
Online Program Updates: Remaining Relevant in a New Reality
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life has always reached the Jewish community in all parts of the state and, increasingly, beyond. At our Fall Shabbaton and Summer Conference, we welcome people from Presque Isle to York and everywhere in between. When the pandemic hit we were ready to transition to an online format to continue serving the Maine Jewish community. The clergy leaped into action, organizing to lead statewide Shabbat services just three weeks after the virus closed our buildings. More than 200 computer users—an estimated 500 people from all over the state—joined for a joyful service. It was clear that people loved being together. The chat box filled with greetings of Shabbat Shalom from remote towns and small cities. People commented that seeing one another lifted their spirits and gave them a sense of being part of the broader Jewish community. Each month since April, the Center has run one statewide Shabbat service that connects the Maine community and gives congregational clergy a chance to lead with one another.
A participant in our May statewide service writes:
I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed Shabbat Together. I found it uplifting and powerful. Thank you to everyone involved for all the time and effort in planning and organizing this statewide event. After half a semester of teaching classes and attending meetings on Zoom, I was skeptical about cybernetic services. But I really miss services in shul so I decided to give it a try. It was wonderful!! Such good energy!! Thank you again.
The Center did not only provide Shabbat services. When we talked among ourselves and reached out to our partners, it was clear that the online format provided the opportunity to bring quality Jewish learning to our community. This past spring and summer we offered a variety of programs—a session with Israeli photographer Daniel Tchetchik, a workshop on Ethical Wills, a Shavuot Beit Midrash with Colby students, and a statewide Tisha B’Av service and reading of Lamentations.
These programs drew a diverse audience of all ages and engaged participants in new ways. For example, we partnered with the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine for our Tisha B’Av program. We heard from three artists who created pieces for the WALLS exhibit to be held at the HHRC. This exhibit aimed to use art as a mode of exploration of the barriers we have historically put up between ourselves and others. We tied this into the theme of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and talked about the divisive walls being built today. Following a service featuring contemporary and traditional readings, people from across the state took turns chanting chapters from Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Over 80 people joined us for this meaningful Tisha B’Av, far exceeding the number of participants who, in non-pandemic years, would gather for Tisha B’Av services in person.
Our annual suite of children’s programming underwent a virtual makeover as well. Usually we run Funtensive, a week-long program of Jewish learning for kids of all ages, but this summer, we offered two weeks of childrens’ programming online for one hour a day. We sang, read stories, did art, and learned Hebrew with Jewish children from across Maine and farther afield. Our children were excited to connect with one another and learn something new about Judaism, and our parents were excited to have a moment of time to themselves, while knowing that despite the distance, their children were able to engage and learn in their own Jewish space.
Finally, the Center staff collaborated with local clergy to provide a wide variety of programs for Elul and the High Holidays. We reached over 200 people with a diverse array of programs from contemplative (a session on Cheshbon HaNefesh) to movement-oriented (dance!) to joyful (a Women’s Rosh Hodesh Circle). Additionally, Maine congregations collaboratively donated to fund the creation of a suite of online resources at the direction of the Center. Friends of the Center have enriched their personal experiences of the High Holidays with a concert from Nefesh Mountain, a Mindfulness and Melodies experience with Cantor Sheila Nesis, and music all the way from Israel by Galilee artists Feliza and Or Zohar. Rev. Kate Braestrup, chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, offered a moving reflection on the Unetenah Tokef prayer.
And now, as we conclude our month of festivals and sacred celebrations, we are excitedly planning our online Fall Shabbaton scheduled for Nov. 7-8. We joyfully anticipate coming together to hear the uplifting music of our guest artist, Deborah Sacks Mintz of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute in New York, and guest scholar Yoshi Silverstein, who will bring to the forefront issues of inclusivity and diversity within the Jewish community. It will be Shabbaton like no other, and we can’t wait to welcome everyone to our virtual meeting place for a weekend of uplifting study and song.
The Center is uniquely positioned to offer these programs. We have built strong relationships with people all over Maine and with their clergy; we have a reach that expands beyond the organized Jewish community; we have partnerships with Jewish organizations; and we have the staff and resources to provide these programs. It has been a busy six months of online learning and community, but the work was well worth it. We are looking forward to reconnecting with our partners and planning another six months of meaningful and enriching programs.
Because of generous support from friends and community members across the state and country, and around the world, we have been able to offer every single one of these virtual programs free of charge. Community members who were able to contribute supported programs they attended, but we have worked to make this programming as accessible as possible. This is consistent with our organization’s core belief that money should never be a barrier to accessing enriching Jewish life and community.
We feel the need to gather virtually even more acutely during a pandemic when public health guidelines have radically restricted our ability to convene Jewish community in person. As we craft a new season’s worth of programming, we rely on the support of those able to give to ensure that as we weather the coming months, the Center is able to continue bringing the best of the Jewish world to every corner, and every WiFi network, in our state.
We look forward to seeing you online soon as we continue to do everything we can to keep our community strong, engaged, and growing Jewishly in the face of challenge, and in anticipation of gathering together in person again.
Rabbi Erica Asch
Director of Online Programs
Center for Small Town Jewish Life
Home at Colby Hillel
Many Jewish students who come to Colby are surprised by the strength of the Jewish resources here. Indeed, we connect with our Judaism through the Jewish Studies department, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, Beth Israel Congregation, and Colby Hillel.
This has been true of our experience, especially this past year, in unexpected ways. After learning online and being separated for many months when the College switched to a remote semester in March, we are particularly grateful to be back with our fellow students at Hillel this fall. Celebrating Jewish holidays with people our age is a bittersweet gift. In normal years, many of us miss family as we gather for Shabbat and holidays throughout the semester. This past spring, the feeling was reversed—spending the spring semester at home made us miss squeezing into the Hillel room to eat our chocolate chip challah, or dressing up for the Colby Passover seder with our friends, and dropping in to the Hillel room between classes to grab a matzah pizza. Our time at Colby has given rise to new rituals and rhythms in the Jewish calendar that are our own as young Jewish adults.
As students, we put a lot into Colby Hillel, and we get so much out of it in return. We clean up in our dishwasher-less kitchen every week, send endless emails to plan events, and make sure that there is someone to cook Shabbat dinner each week. Through all of this, even the sometimes mundane activity and work, we are proud of Colby Hillel and the ways it encourages us, and our peers, to step into Jewish adulthood on our own terms, with our own passions and goals.
We are so grateful to be back on campus with our Colby and Waterville Jewish communities right now. If things seem uncertain and precarious, the flip side of that is that we feel a renewed appreciation for what our Jewish home on campus offers us: rootedness in who we are and a deep community network made up of Beth Israel congregants, faculty, staff, and peers committed to building colorful and meaningful Jewish life on the Hill.
Each year at Kol Nidre services, the Hillel presidents ask fellow students to consider becoming student members of Beth Israel Congregation as a demonstration of commitment and reciprocity to this community institution that welcomes us, feeds us, and prays with us. This year, we are also appealing to our wider community to support our Jewish home—Colby Hillel. With your help we will continue to offer a strong array of Jewish learning opportunities, robust holiday observances in every season, and most importantly, a strong foundation for this essential student organization that we hand down to every consecutive generation of Colby students.
With profound gratitude,
Colby Hillel Presidents
Sonia Lachter ‘22
Duda Voldman ‘22
We were named a 10 to Watch organization by Slingshot
Every year the Slingshot Fund, a national philanthropic organization, names ten up-and-coming Jewish organizations to their “10 to Watch List”—we made the list this year! Through features on the Slingshot blog, we have been honored to share stories about the Maine Jewish Community, and the impact of our organization, from friends, fellows, and alumni. Check out the videos from our feature below—hear from some of our program participants from the Colby College Jewish Leadership Fellowship and the Rabbinical Student Fellowship programs, which aim to spiritually enrich our communities through expanding leadership.
Every fall, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life welcomes a new cohort of Jewish Leadership Fellows. Selected from Colby student applicants, fellows of all backgrounds are taught to exercise leadership in our community in accordance with the wisdom, cultural riches, and values embodied in the Jewish tradition. Each fellow works closely with Center staff to develop and execute programs, and to cultivate confidence and valuable skills. The fellowship integrates service to the Colby, Waterville, and statewide communities with rigorous Jewish learning and mentorship. Hear from 2019-2020 Jewish Leadership Fellow Noa Guttow-Ellis about her experience.
*All stories and videos originally published on Slingshot.
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To Donate to the Center for Small Town Jewish Life: When you give, please be sure to click “Colby Fund” which will bring you to the Dare Northward page. From there, please choose “The Center for Small Town Life” on the drop-down menu.
To Donate to Colby Hillel: When you give, please be sure to click “Colby Fund” which will bring you to the Dare Northward page. From there, please choose “The Pugh Center” in the drop-down menu and type “for Colby Hillel” in the comments box.Donate Now