Not every small, rural Jewish congregation is lucky enough to have a rabbi. Temple Beth Israel, in Waterville, Maine—also home to Colby College—is lucky to have not just any rabbi, but Rav Rachel Isaacs, a community organizer, academic, mother, and deliverer of the White House Hanukkah celebration benediction in 2016. She’s also the executive director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, which fosters collaboration between small synagogues and colleges to provide Jewish programming and strengthen the Jewish community. I talked with her about being gay and Jewish in a small town, the differences between New Jersey and Maine, and the menschiness of President Obama.
How did you find yourself leading a congregation in rural central Maine?
So there was a program at the Jewish Theological Seminary that was funded by the Legacy Heritage Fund to place 50 rabbinical students in small congregations that couldn’t afford rabbis. Some of my classmates were placed in the Mississippi delta, or in Reno, Nevada. I was placed in Waterville, Maine. I was placed there as a rabbinical student but I was the only student in that program who decided to stay on as a job afterwards.
How different is Maine from where you grew up?
So I grew up in Central New Jersey in a town called Manalapan. I’d say it’s about 40-50% Jewish, seven synagogues there. I grew up in a very large Conservative congregation; my grandparents were founding members there. They had matzah pizza in the public school dining halls over Passover; it was never a question that Hanukkah would get equal time with Christmas; it was never a question that public school was canceled for the High Holidays.
What inspired you to stay in Maine?
When I was placed I thought it was just a one-year adventure in a strange place. I’d never heard of Waterville, Maine. I Googled it and found a story about “Man Killed By Moose.”
I came up to Waterville and I really loved it. Where I grew up, every Jewish event was catered, every event was professionalized. Then I came up to Waterville and kiddush is made by the synagogue board, everything is set up and cleaned up by the staff. Even though it’s hard to be Jewish in a place like Waterville, the kids are so proud and fight so fiercely for their Jewish identity. In places like New Jersey where I grew up, it’s very easy to take Jewishness for granted. It’s a commodity you can pick up and put down. Being Jewish here is something precious that you have to fight for all the time. And that inspired me, and when it came to decide where I was going to go after I graduated, I said to Mel—at the time my girlfriend, now my wife—I just don’t feel like my work is done here.
What’s family life been like for you in Waterville?
I have an 11-month-old, Nitzan, and it’s really hard to go back to work with kids, and I’m really fortunate that Colby [College] was very generous with my maternity leave and that the congregation basically has been extremely accommodating with our needs with the baby. We bring her to everything—every pastoral meeting, every event. Nitzan is expected to be there—she’s being raised not just by Mel and me, but by the Hillel. She has tons of sisters and brothers and bubbes and zaydes, and I feel blessed to have them and they feel blessed to have me, and I’m incredibly blessed to be in that situation.
On the whole, we haven’t encountered a lot of homophobia. There were one or two people in the congregation that raised objections, but interestingly enough the people that came most vigorously to our defense were the elderly people in the congregation, which really sort of goes against any stereotypes a person may have. I think for the older people in the congregation they have enough wisdom to know what’s important and what’s not, and another thing they realized, being Jewish in Waterville for decades, is having a young person who’s passionate about Judaism, you embrace them. Mel has been embraced. She’s the director of education and programming; we work as a couple.
It was thrilling to watch you give the benediction at the White House Hanukkah party! How did that come to pass?
I was contacted by Chanan Weissman, the Liaison to the American Jewish Community. I am not totally sure about why I was chosen, but I know he was looking for a young, progressive woman who shared the president’s values and tone. He also told me that he had read my sermons on my blog and was impressed by them. He also mentioned he would like to give the honor to someone who was not from a major urban area.
I was shocked. This is not something that a rabbi from small-town Maine expects. The highlights were getting a picture with our daughter and the Obamas, and also the president getting a box for me to stand on before I began speaking. He is a mensch. The best thing, however, was the pride I saw in the faces of my congregants and my students after I came home. There is nothing better than seeing your congregation and your Hillel students schep that kind of nachas.