In recognition of her distinctive leadership and innovative approach to Jewish education, the Covenant Foundation has honored Rabbi Rachel Isaacs with a 2020 Pomegranate Prize. Each year the prize recognizes five emerging Jewish educators from across the country whose work the foundation finds influential through bold, inclusive, and creative action.
Since her arrival in Maine 10 years ago, Isaacs, Colby’s inaugural Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond Chair in Jewish Studies, has intentionally and effectively connected Colby and Waterville’s Jewish communities as well as Maine’s diverse congregants, synagogues, and organizations. Her ability to build bridges serves as a model that communities nationwide have begun to emulate.
“Rachel has created a ‘wraparound’ rabbinate, one that tends to both the spiritual and material needs of not just the congregation she serves, but of Jewish people across the state,” said Harlene Winnick Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, which brings together the most influential people in the global Jewish community.
“Her work has empowered individuals to revitalize their own Jewish learning and engagement and to take what they learn back to their communities. This is the kind of bold action that makes Rachel a truly outstanding rising leader in the field.”
Isaacs said the award was unexpected, but she’s grateful for the national recognition of the work underway in Central Maine, which counters what she says is the perception that a dynamic Jewish life can occur only in well-funded urban areas. “I’m really excited to showcase a vibrant, multigenerational, creative Jewish community in a small, rural town,” said Isaacs, who also serves as executive director of Colby’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life (CSTJL) and as spiritual leader of Waterville’s Beth Israel congregation.
“I think that Jewish communities in places like Waterville have a lot to contribute in terms of future leadership,” she said, “and in terms of what it looks like to be a Jewish community that is more equitable along class lines.”
It’s potential that Appelman sees too. “By working closely with small Jewish communities in Maine and understanding the needs of underrepresented people, Rachel is learning invaluable lessons about meeting the needs of Jews of all socioeconomic and geographic strata, everywhere,” she said. “The Center for Small Town Jewish Life can and should play an important role in fostering the conversation in the Jewish community about equity.”
While Isaacs has been feted previously—the Jewish Daily Forward named her one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” in 2014—the Pomegranate Prize focuses on her work as an educator. “Jewish education,” Isaacs said, “is about deepening relationships and enriching them through ancient and contemporary wisdom.” And it’s about ensuring that the relationships among the parts of her many roles—professor, rabbi, and CSTJL leader—strengthen each individual part.
Whether it’s Colby students serving as Torah readers at Beth Israel Synagogue or Waterville residents welcoming students into their homes for a Shabbat dinner or Jews and non-Jews coming together for one of the center’s statewide conferences, Isaacs has established an infrastructure rooted in Jewish learning that simultaneously builds community.
Now in its 10th year, the Pomegranate Prize—so named for the fruit’s 613 seeds, which correspond to the 613 commandments in the Torah—recognizes Jewish educators who have been in the field for up to 10 years. Recipients are nurtured by the Covenant Foundation through connections with exceptional educators and prominent thought leaders representing a broad swath of Jewish life.
The opportunity to celebrate and deepen Jewish life brings Isaacs tremendous pride and joy, she said, unabashedly relishing the spotlight. “It’s really exciting to know that the heads of all the major movements, of all the seminaries, of all the major family foundations that are the biggest players in the Jewish world said, ‘Here’s a rabbi in Maine who’s doing something so noteworthy that we want to raise her work up on a national level.’”
People are indeed paying attention. “Rachel’s work,” Appelman predicts, “will undoubtedly have ripple effects.”