Rabbi Rachel Isaacs: Multi-Tasking in Maine!

Posted on: Wednesday December 31, 1969

Adam Baldachin

On September 15, 2014, Tablet, an online magazine which calls itself “A New Read on Jewish Life” published a piece by Yair Rosenberg - “15 American Rabbis You Haven’t Heard Of, But Should. Since five of these fifteen are our colleagues (and of course many of us have heard of them!), this article gives us the opportunity to we learn more about them: Analia Bortz, Rachel Isaacs, Barry Dov Katz, Ethan Linden and Jason Rubenstein are among those leaders whose influence, says Tablet has been felt “around the country, in every denomination, even if you don’t know them by name.” We begin with Rachel Isaacs.

Talk about wearing two hats! Rabbi Rachel Isaacs is both spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Waterville, Maine and Jewish Chaplain at Waterville’s Colby College, while her position as Visiting Instructor in Colby’s Jewish Studies Department probably merits a third hat. Rachel might be described as a “synergy rabbi” because she not only leads two Jewish communities but she has created a system of integrating them so that the whole is now greater than either school or shul and, as she says, it’s “more joyous” when the two communities celebrate together.

Rachel’s connection with Beth Israel and Colby began in rabbinical school when Rabbi Lebeau “in his infinite wisdom” recommended Beth Israel as a student placement which also led to some work with Colby Hillel. That went very well indeed: the president of the shul asked her to stay on as the rabbi after graduation in 2011 and the Dean of Faculty at Colby offered her a faculty position. So Rachel and her wife Melanie Weiss (an MA in Jewish education from JTS) headed north where they are enjoying the advantages of small town life. Rachel is fortunate to have not only her partner as director of Education at Beth Israel, transforming a Hebrew school that had been “in trouble for decades” but also a rabbinic colleague David Freidenreich, ordained at JTS and a PhD from Columbia as Associate Professor at Colby and Director of its Jewish Studies program. Large resources for a small town!

Re-invigorating the Congregation and the Campus

There are a number of ways to measure the achievements of Rachel’s dual rabbinate – for one, both her congregation and Colby Hillel nominated her as one of the Forward’s “most inspiring rabbis” without knowing the other was doing so. And then there are the numbers - Beth Israel has grown from 25 to 57 families and Colby Hillel from 5 “committed, beleaguered students” to the current 50.  But a more meaningful measure of Rachel’s success is the integration between the two which began with a series of home hospitality Shabbat dinners. Students were invited to Friday night services by congregants followed by dinner at their homes and the success of that first home hospitality Shabbat set the tone for the relationship. A good deal of thought goes into matching students and congregants and relationships take on a shape of their own including attending High Holiday services together and being there for family smachot. Hillel students take part in the programming at Beth Israel, are the primary Torah readers for the congregation and serve as bar/bar mitzvah tutors – often returning even after graduation to visit “their Waterville family”. Each year the Hillel president and the Beth Israel president make a High Holiday appeal to the congregation and every member of the Hillel Board is a member of Beth Israel.

While only 8-10% of the students at Colby College (enrollment of 1800) are Jewish and 80% come from Reform or unaffiliated backgrounds, the Shabbat dinners – begun as monthly events by Rachel and now held every week – are attended by 30-40 students. There are non-Jewish members of Hillel who come for “community, home cooked food and learning”, several of whom have been so attracted to this “vibrant, progressive faith community” that they have chosen to convert. Opportunities for study and celebration abound at Colby - http://www.colby.edu/jewishstudies/events/ - with some co-sponsored with Beth Israel of course!  While Rachel laments that she didn’t pay enough attention to dikduk and binyanim at JTS she nonetheless teaches Hebrew at Colby along with Jewish Theology and Jewish Humor and notes that whether in shul or at Colby “90% is about reaching Torah.”  

While Jewish life in small towns across America is often waning or disappearing, in Waterville, Maine Jewish life is alive and well as you can see from Rachel’s blog: http://jewishwaterville.blogspot.com. Inspired by their experience in Waterville Rachel and David Freidenreich are founding the Center for Small-Town Jewish Life that will focus on similar needs in these towns that are not being addressed by national organizations.  Yet another hat for the multi-tasking Rabbi Rachel Isaacs. Her mantra?  “When I’m doing the job right, I’m serving everyone at once”.

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