Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life: Energizing Jewish Life through Collaboration

A ritual at the launch of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life,
representing the collaboration between Colby College,
Beth Israel Congregation, and the Alfond-Lunder-Levine families.

     On November 19, 2015, Colby College formally inaugurated the Dorothy "Bibby" Levine Alfond Assistant Professorship in Jewish Studies and launched the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, a joint initiative of Beth Israel Congregation, Colby College Hillel, and the Jewish Studies Program at Colby. In truth, the Center brings together many more partners than its three anchors: it aims to forge collaborations among all of Maine's synagogues and Hillels, and to work with national Jewish organizations like Hillel International and the Association for Jewish Studies in order to support and sustain Jewish life at small colleges and small towns across the country. 
    The work of the Center began before our official launch. For the past three years, we have piloted and executed programs that have brought new strength and energy to the Jewish communities of Maine. Our flagship initiative is the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, directed by Melanie Weiss (Education Director at Portland's Temple Beth El and Waterville's Beth Israel Congregation) and Rabbi Erica Asch (Augusta's Temple Beth El and Bowdoin Hillel). It has reached hundreds of Jews throughout the state, growing significantly with each year and garnering international attention for its unique focus and noteworthy successes. Under the leadership of these two women, we also run the yearly mid-Maine Jewish Funtensive, a low-cost summer educational experience that provides immersive Hebrew activities and fun for Jewish children from across the state. Through these programs, the Center actualizes its core belief that all Jews are entitled to the best of Jewish learning and the richest cultural experiences, regardless of socioeconomic background and geographic location. 
     We are also committed to fostering fruitful collaborations between colleges and synagogues in order to increase the quality of staffing and programming for Jewish communities outside of major urban centers. We have cultivated an inspirational and synergistic relationship between Beth Israel Congregation and Colby College that can serve as a model for sustaining and enriching small-town Jewish life. Colby Hillel and Beth Israel Congregation celebrate major holidays together, with Colby students serving as Torah readers, synagogue board members, and Purim schpiel players with Beth Israel parents and kids. Beth Israel families host Colby students for "Home Hospitality Shabbat," offering a Jewish home away from home for Hillel students in Waterville. This year our students hosted their first "Reverse Home Hospitality Shabbat," illustrating our students' deep appreciation for their relationship with the synagogue and their desire to stand as Jewish adults in their own right. Our Colby students also serve as Waterville Jewish Leadership Fellows, teaching in our local Hebrew school, planning the annual Colby-Bowdoin-Bates Shabbaton, and running and other yearly programs.
   Under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. David Freidenreich (Associate Director of the Center), the Jewish Studies program has consistently played an important role in bringing the most impressive teachers and scholars to small communities throughout the state. The program has also brought Colby students into working relationships local community members through research into Maine's substantial Jewish history and present. We are proud that the Jewish Studies program at Colby is a leader in advancing a forward-thinking approach to community education and engagement.  
    With the launch of this ambitious initiative, we are committed to enriching Jewish life throughout the state of Maine, replicating the collaborative model developed in Waterville nationally, and bringing the unique contributions and needs of small-town communities and colleges into the national Jewish conversation. We invite you to join us on this journey.  Join us for the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, spread the word about the work we are doing in Waterville, and contribute to our vision. Every gift you make will be matched by the Harold Alfond Foundation up to $100,000.  We have until September to meet this goal.  Please help us in actualizing our sincere belief that kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh - every Jew is responsible for one another, especially those on the margins of Jewish life.

With deep gratitude and excitement,

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs
Director, Center for Small Town Jewish Life
Dorothy "Bibby" Levine Alfond Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies
Spiritual Leader, Beth Israel Congregation

Bibby Alfond Inaugural: Rabbi Rachel Isaacs’ Inaugural Address from Colby College on Vimeo.
Click here for full text of my remarks.