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Maine: Training a New Generation of Rabbis

August 10, 2020
Center for Small Town Jewish Life

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life in Maine has developed a hands-on program training rabbinical students to learn what it takes to serve diverse, rural populations. Here, three of our recent fellows speak about the impact their fellowship has had on their growth as future rabbis and leaders in the Jewish community. Check out the videos and the accompanying transcriptions to hear about the fellowship’s unique and lasting impact on these up-and-coming rabbis.

About the Rabbinical Student Fellowship Program
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life’s rabbinical student fellowship program offers a unique twist on the classic small-town student pulpit. Each fellow works in a diverse and vibrant community large enough to support its own clergy but small enough to crave the energy and excitement for building Jewish life that rabbinical and cantorial students bring. Fellows receive intensive mentorship from a multi-denominational team of rabbis who have chosen to establish their careers in Maine’s small Jewish communities. They also learn about the distinctive dynamics of small-town Jewish life in sessions with scholars and communal professionals.

Over several visits across the year to a single congregation, fellows lead services, teach children and adults, and establish meaningful relationships with congregants. In addition, fellows offer programs in Jewish communities across the state, including at Maine’s colleges. These include programs related to a project with potential for lasting impact that the fellow selects and executes in consultation with local rabbinical mentors.

The insights and leadership strategies that fellows gain are relevant in Jewish communities of all sizes. Maine provides an especially valuable training ground for the next generation of American rabbis. Our state’s rabbis and lay leaders are master entrepreneurs and experts at finding ways to do more with less. They have much to teach our fellows about innovation, collaboration, and the socioeconomic realities of small Jewish communities. Because small-town congregations lack large support staff, these fellows develop practical rabbinical skills in everything from teaching and pastoral care to budget management and cooking. Fellows will also experience the many ways in which non-Jews play important roles in sustaining vibrant Jewish life in diverse communities.

Rabbinical Fellow Benjy Forester
Jewish Theological Seminary
Rising third-year student

Video Transcript:
My name is Benjy Forester and I'm a rising third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I had the great pleasure and honor of being an inaugural rabbinical fellow with the Center for Small Town Jewish Life serving in Waterville, Maine from 2018 to 2019. I learned immense things—not only skills for the rabbinate, which I did learn—but really what it means to be in Jewish community, and the type of passion that it takes to build Jewish connection today. 

A few examples really come to mind. One is the attention to every single detail to make Jewish experience possible, whether that's setting up the room, making the food, or even driving speakers from Portland, Maine, up to Waterville in a big white van, which was a responsibility that I had as a rabbinical fellow because that's what it takes to build Jewish community. 

Also, the attention to every single age group, and bringing them into the Jewish experience—both together and in isolation—whether I was working and playing games with little kids to prepare for the holidays, or taking a group of teenagers to Boston to learn what Jewish life looks like in a bigger city, running a Passover seder on the Colby College campus, being in the synagogue with adults, leading tefillot, or learning together, or even visiting some of the senior members of the community in their home. All of that is paid careful attention to, every single person matters at every single age. But also there's connections across every age group. You can't attend an event through the Center and not see the different generations holding each other, caring for each other, knowing each other, and supporting each other. That's what the Center is about. 

I can speak for hours about the amazing mentorship I had, but the rabbis there know that it takes a special type of commitment, and they wanted to bring that out in me. I learned that from my mentors, Rabbi David, Rabbi Rachel, and others, and I'm going to carry that passion and those skills with me wherever I go. I am really forever grateful and I've been touched by the Maine Jewish community for the rest of my life.

Rabbinical Fellow Max Edwards
Hebrew College
Temple B’nai Abraham
Livingston, New Jersey

Video Transcript:
Hi, my name is Max Edwards. I was a rabbinical fellow at the Center for Small Town Jewish Life in Maine in the year 2019 to 2020. I'm currently going into my fifth year of rabbinical school Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, and just started working the other week, actually, at Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey, as a more-or-less full-time rabbinical assistant. 

So my time in Maine has, you know, I was only there for a year, but it really had a profound impact on my rabbinate. I think one of the main things with the Center is that you get this, in between these big conferences, where you really get a chance to see all these wonderful people. And within those conferences, you build these small groups and these small cohorts of learning, and the navigating between the two, being able to kind of be there at those big events and do your rabbi things that you need to do and also really taking the time to interact with people in a way that's, that's meaningful and deep. And especially at the conferences—those were a big part of my experience up in Maine—I would say also, you have this sense in Maine—and I think Mainers can probably attest to this better than anyone else—they know when they see authenticity. 

And aside from the importance of being in rabbinical school, and learning and teaching and all those things, being a fellow at the Center really taught me what it means to be your authentic self in community. And it's it's definitely a skill and it's something that you have to grow into, and to be around a bunch of people from Maine who can discern that very quickly—when you're not being your true self—and it's something I learned from my rabbinic mentors in Maine, too, that people people want you, people want a true representation of you. And that's really stuck with me through my time at the Center, and God willing, will continue to stick with me throughout my rabbinate.

Rabbinical Fellow Lily Solochek
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College 2020
Adas Yoshuron Synagogue
Rockland, Maine

Video Transcript:
Hi, my name is Rabbi Lily Solochek, and I serve as the spiritual leader of Adas Yoshuron in Rockland, Maine. I'm a 2020 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and was rabbinic fellow for the Center for Small Time Jewish Life in 2018-2019. 

The Center fellowship was a meaningful experience in my rabbinical formation. I had the opportunity to see up close what it means to be Jewish in Maine, to be Jewish in a small town in a rural setting, and what it means to serve as a rabbi in these communities. One of the most important lessons I learned through this fellowship is to measure success in quality, not quantity. We aren't necessarily getting hundreds or even dozens of people at every event, which means we value every single person who comes. And I hope that no matter what size community I serve at different points in my career, I hold fast to that, valuing every single individual who is present. And because of those smaller groups, I had the chance to build meaningful relationships with community members, some of whom I'm still in touch with now. 

During my year with the Center I traveled around Maine and taught about water in Jewish tradition and the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. I helped participants craft their own rituals that were both meaningful to the moments in their lives, and took into account the seasonal access to outdoor mikvaot in the lakes and rivers of Maine. 

The fellowship was an excellent mix of hands-on job experience and thoughtful reflection with my mentors, Rabbi Vinikoor, Rabbi Freidenreich, and Rabbi Isaacs, I think the combination of fieldwork and processing made space for all the different ways that we learn. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been a fellow with the Center for Small Town Jewish Life and would highly recommend this fellowship to other rabbinical students. Usually student rabbis have to choose between working in a medium or large congregation that can support both a rabbi and rabbinical student or a small congregation where they are the sole clergy and don't necessarily receive mentorship the same way. This fellowship is a brilliant hybrid that allowed me to both gain the practical rabbinic experience in a unique setting, while still maintaining and receiving that mentorship and guidance from an experienced rabbi. 

When I started rabbinical school, I had a dream of serving as a rabbi in a small town. And this fellowship gave me the opportunity to experience that work firsthand and confirm that that would be a meaningful full path for my rabbinic journey. Thank you.