An endowed faculty chair in Jewish studies and the new Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College have solidified Colby’s place as a leader in Jewish studies among liberal arts colleges. On Nov. 19 the College celebrated both developments when Rabbi Rachel Isaacs delivered the inaugural lecture for the Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond Professorship of Jewish Studies. Isaacs, at Colby since 2011 and the founding director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, was promoted to assistant professor and named to the new Alfond chair this academic year.
In 2014 the Jewish Daily Forward named Isaacs one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” She is also the advisor for Hillel at Colby and the spiritual leader of Waterville’s Beth Israel Congregation. She is credited with reviving Jewish life on Mayflower Hill and in Waterville.
President David A. Greene, opening the celebration, acknowledged the importance of Isaacs’s work and that of the center. Colby “is a place that takes Jewish studies very seriously … that takes our Jewish community very seriously,” he said. He called Isaacs “an extraordinary rabbi,” and said, “When I look at what Rachel does for this community, and the way she builds it up, and what she develops here—it signals to the world about the kind of place that we are and what’s important to us.”
Isaacs’s inaugural talk, “The Sisterhood Is Powerful: The Role of Synagogue Sisterhoods in American Jewish Life and the Legacy of Bibby Levine Alfond,” offered an overview of Jewish women’s roles in their synagogues, homes, and communities as well as the influence the Jewish Sisterhood in the lives of Jewish women in the 20th century.
Isaacs outlined how Jewish women moved from traditional domestic and spousal duties to jobs outside the home, positions in their synagogues, and a sense of feminism and capitalism within their spiritual reality. Consequently, “As women became more empowered in the Jewish political and organizational sphere, as well as in secular context,” Isaacs said, “their traditional disempowerment and exclusion in the religious sphere became all the more glaring.”
Women became more empowered when the Sisterhood reform movement in the 1930s came out strongly in favor of full equality for women in all aspects of Jewish religious life. Eventually, beginning in 1983, women were ordained to become rabbis—coincidentally, the year of Isaacs’s birth, she said.
In Waterville, Jewish women grew and changed in step with women throughout the United States. But their core values were embodied in the matriarch Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond, whom Isaacs called “the Jewish soul of her family.” Even though Isaacs never met Bibby Alfond, she is “proud to keep her legacy alive by adopting her name as part of my own through the naming of this position,” she said.
With the naming of a professorship and the creation of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, Isaacs joins the community in “keeping Bibby’s memory alive through the actualization of her most deeply held values: family, faith, and community and, in particular, Waterville.”