For generations, collaboration between Colby and central Maine’s Jewish community has been one of the strong threads in the fabric of the town-gown partnership, and in recent years it’s grown even stronger. Now a new initiative will extend that tie, attempting to bottle the formula that connects Colby, Hillel, and Waterville’s Beth Israel Congregation so colleges and communities across the country can try to replicate it.
The formation of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, based at Colby, was announced in February along with a gift of up to $700,000 from the Harold Alfond Foundation to launch the center and to complete the endowment of a professorship in Jewish studies.
Rabbi Rachel Isaacs is executive director of the center, and Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies David Freidenreich is associate director. Isaacs, who will be the inaugural Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond Assistant Professor in Jewish Studies, is also rabbi for Beth Israel synagogue, is on the faculty as instructor of Hebrew, is Colby’s Jewish chaplain, and advises the Hillel chapter.
The academic mission of the center will be to build on years of work by Freidenreich and his students, who have studied and documented Jewish life in Maine. Freidenreich said American Jewish studies syllabi usually cover the Lower East Side of New York and then Long Island, but, he discovered when he arrived in 2008, “hardly anyone had studied the Jews of Maine.” So he set out to fix that, establishing student research projects, where members of the Jewish community provide oral history and then attend presentations of the findings. “That’s been incredibly rewarding for the community and the students,” Freidenreich said. Years of research projects are represented on the Maine Jewish History Project website.
Goals of the Center:
- Expand innovative Jewish life programming for Waterville, including Colby students;
- Extend programs to serve small congregations and colleges across Maine and New England;
- Identify needs and strengths of small-town Jewish communities and small colleges nationally and develop ways to address challenges; and
- Work with national organizations and other colleges and communities, further establishing Colby as a recognized leader in opportunities for Jewish life.
When Rabbi Isaacs arrived from New York five years ago, she discovered a dramatic difference between city and suburban Jewish communities (home to her and many of Colby’s Jewish students) and the Jewish community she found in central Maine. When she arrived, participation—both numbers and enthusiasm—was low in the Waterville synagogue and Colby’s Hillel chapter.
“In Waterville we have a synagogue that desperately needs youthful energy, and a lot of students that come to Colby with very strong Jewish backgrounds,” Isaacs said. Among other initiatives, a Waterville Jewish Leadership Fellowship for Colby students was created to build a genuine partnership between the two populations. Student roles include serving on the synagogue’s board, teaching Hebrew school, and tutoring for bar and bat mitzvahs.
Cara Goldfarb ’17, a leadership fellow who teaches and tutors, said she especially likes Hillel Home Hospitality, held once every semester. Students attend a synagogue service, and then afterward are paired with a congregation member and go to that member’s home for dinner. For Goldfarb, last semester’s pairing led to hours of engaged discussion dining with her hosts and another Colby student. “It felt like you were far from campus, which is important to have when you’re a busy college student with a lot of commitments,” she said. “It just feels really homey.”
Isaacs said the idea behind the center is to provide quality resources to small-town and rural congregations across the country and a model to leverage those resources in small communities to create vibrant Jewish life.
Freidenreich said the Colby-based center’s role won’t be to research Jewish life in other parts of the country, but rather to provide approaches and resources for other scholars to do regional work. Collaboration between Colby and Jews in Waterville goes back more than a century, Freidenreich says, but national Jewish organizations don’t commit resources to small towns. “The question is how can we serve those Jews who have been underserved, to provide … the kinds of resources that Jews in Newton, Massachusetts, or on Long Island take for granted?”
Goldfarb’s experience suggests it’s a win-win. The town-gown connection “helped me to strengthen my Jewish identity, connecting me with two very different congregations: my one from home and my one here. Both are very important to me in different ways,” she said. “Having a small congregation is something very special. People really care about one another and we look out for each other.”
A Trove of Jewish History for Maine—and a Model for the Country
How can undergraduate academic programs in small towns and cities serve local Jewish communities? Part of the answer can be found on Colby’s online Maine Jewish History Project, built by Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies David Freidenreich and his students.
It’s an information-rich site that includes:
- The full text of “Making It in Maine: Stories of Jewish Life in Small-Town America” published by Freidenreich in the Jan. 2015 journal Maine History.
- Scores of articles by students and other authors on Jews in Maine, Jews in the Kennebec Valley, and on Jewish life at Colby.
- Links to videos, including a 40-minute feature film, Legacy: The Levine Family, from 2012, remembering Colby legends Lewis “Ludy” ’21 and Percy “Pacy” Levine ’27 and their sister Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond ’38.
National Jewish organizations don’t commit resources to far-flung Jewish communities like the one in the Kennebec Valley, Freidenreich said. So the Center for Small Town Jewish Life was founded with the mission to serve those communities and to create resources to support them. “Doing this through a college is the innovative part,” he said, “and there’s a lot that Colby College brings to the table—for the community and for its students.”
Colby’s history of welcoming Jewish students in significant numbers throughout the 20th century is documented on the site, and Freidenreich says that legacy is seen today in resources that Colby offers to students. It’s the only college in Maine with a Jewish studies program (now with two endowed faculty chairs) and the only school in Maine with a full-time rabbi engaged in on-campus Jewish life. Colby also has the annual Lipman Lecture in Jewish Studies and Berger Family Holocaust Lecture, both related to Judaism and Jewish history.
In April 2014 a national symposium, Anti-Judaism and Its Implications, was held on campus, and Colby students presented their research alongside internationally known authors. Freidenreich said one of the outcomes of the conference was getting some of the leaders in Jewish studies to think about the often-forgotten Jewish communities in small-town America. And as an example of how Colby’s new Center for Small Town Jewish Life can have a national impact, Freidenreich described a conversation he had with the Jewish studies department chair from the University of Arkansas recently, in which Freidenreich explained how researching Maine Jews had reinvigorated the academic program at Colby and energized the local community.
“At a state university, there’s a great opportunity to do statewide research like this,” Freidenreich said. That research will look very different from Colby students’ efforts in Maine, of course, he said, but Colby’s program can definitely provide a model for similar success.
Once Reluctant, Rabbi Puts Down Rural Roots
Still in rabbinical school, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs came to Waterville in 2010 on a Legacy Heritage Rabbinic Fellowship to serve as interim student rabbi at Beth Israel synagogue and to work with Colby students. The congregation liked her so well that they asked her to continue. “Stay here!” she remembers thinking. “What? I am never leaving New York!”
“It was beyond my cognitive abilities.”
But she found the Waterville community “super accepting” and her work with the small-town congregation and with students on Mayflower Hill rewarding and fulfilling. Now, she said, “I want other rabbis to make this professional choice, because I think it’s good for the Jewish people.”
That realization informs part of the mission of the new Center for Small Town Jewish Life. The synergy she’s forged between a synagogue that needs youthful energy and students who take Judaism very seriously is a model that is succeeding. And for her efforts she was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by the Jewish Daily Forward in 2014.
Isaacs, beginning in the fall semester, also will be the inaugural Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond Professor in Jewish Studies, honoring the accomplishments of the late Bibby Alfond ’38, P’72, GP’92, who was an important figure in the Waterville Jewish community and at Colby. With the support of the professorship by the Harold Alfond Foundation, Isaacs’s continued presence ensures further progress for both the College and Beth Israel Congregation.
“If I weren’t here, I think you’d have a lot of people whose hearts are in the right places who would not be served,” she said. Case in point: Adam Livshits, son of Math Professor Leo Livshits. When Adam had his bar mitzvah in December, Leo said he represented the first generation in the Livshits family to have a bar mitzvah since before the Russian Revolution—in more than a century.
“Adam was an incredible student. He read and sang in Hebrew beautifully in front of one hundred and twenty-five people,” Isaacs said. “If there were not a rabbi serving the Jewish community here, that would be a Jew lost.”
Back in New York, her congregation would be so big she would never have the variety of roles that she fills in Maine. “If I were a rabbi in Manhattan, I wouldn’t have to stay for two hours after Shabbat to do dishes,” she said.
But she also wouldn’t get such a wide cross-section of the community to pitch in when the basement of the synagogue flooded, as it recently did. “Everybody came. Colby professors, families. Everybody came with buckets and literally bailed the water out,” she recalled. “That wouldn’t happen in Manhattan.”
“I thought I’d only be here for a year or two. Now I’m in my fifth year with no intention of leaving anytime soon. Because there’s no greater joy as a rabbi than to see your congregation dedicate their time and their heart to a synagogue. There’s no greater joy as a rabbi not just to educate my Colby students but to see them build Jewish life for themselves.”