Back to Blog

Tenacious Roots and Open Arms—The Maine Jewish Community

August 25, 2020

It has been an honor to share features from the Center for Small Town Jewish Life with the national Slingshot community. Over the past month we’ve brought you stories of rabbinical student fellows learning what it takes to serve small-town Jewish congregations in Maine and undergraduate Jewish Leadership Fellows maturing into community-minded adults through civic engagement. Now, we are thrilled to share a final set of videos from three very different voices in our community. 

This week, listen to Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, the Center’s director, speak about what makes the organization unique, and how we work every day to live up to our values in small and large ways. Then, hear from Bethashley Cajuste, who was first introduced to Jewish life as a student at Colby, and who ended up finding a home in the Jewish community through experiences like traveling to Israel with the Center. Finally, Kenden Alfond, born and raised in Waterville, speaks about how growing up Jewish in Maine has influenced her life, her outlook, and her philosophy on parenting. 

These stories from Rabbi Isaacs, Bethashley Cajuste, and Kenden Alfond illustrate with impact the mission and vision of our organization: the Center for Small Town Jewish Life cultivates transformational learning and vibrant Jewish community rooted in the state of Maine. We envision a socially equitable, multigenerational, and geographically diverse Jewish world sustained by intentional collaboration.

Ultimately, what all of our students, fellows, community members, and staff have in common is an unwavering commitment to the small-town communities that animate the spirit of our Jewish experience and our Jewish home. Jewish community here, much like the landscape that surrounds us, is tenacious and resilient, and we are deeply respectful—and proud—of our humble roots. We are honored to be able to demonstrate to the world that Jewish life can thrive away from major urban centers by bringing people together across lines of difference—generational, socioeconomic, and geographic. 

All of us at the Center for Small Town Jewish Life invite you to follow our work, to stay in touch, and to come visit. You can find us on Facebook and you can support our work by visiting our website here.

With best wishes for a meaningful Elul and for an expansive spiritual transition into the new year—l’Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, Director, Center for Small Town Jewish Life Rachel Isaacs was named one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis (2014) by the Jewish Daily Forward. Ordained in 2011 by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she studied as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation. She is also the inaugural holder of the Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond chair in Jewish Studies by Colby College, where she teaches courses on Hebrew, Jewish theology, and Jewish humor. In 2016, she delivered the final Hanukkah benediction of the Obama administration at the White House.

I'm Rabbi Rachel Isaacs. I am the director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life and I'm currently at Beth Israel Congregation on Main Street in Waterville, Maine. We're currently recording [Torah services] for the High Holidays. All of our Torah readers—Beth Israel teens, Colby students, and community members are all having individual appointments [where they come in to pre-record their aliyot for the High Holidays].

Q: What is the Center for Small Town Jewish Life?

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life brings the best of Jewish education and Jewish life to the state of Maine. We're an organization that's committed to providing educational, social, and cultural excellence to the Jewish community of Maine and to proving that we can bring—that the American Jewish community can bring—the best of Jewish life to all Americans, not just those that live in major, well-resourced urban centers.

Q: How has the Center adapted to new realities around the COVID-19 pandemic?

So it's really interesting. I mean, this is a time of unbelievable uncertainty for the Jewish community, for America, and for the world. And yet, this pandemic has provided the Center for Small Town Jewish Life an opportunity to prove just how resilient and flexible and relevant we are. 

As soon as the pandemic hit, the rabbis and cantors of the state of Maine came together—instantly—we had a Zoom call about how we were going to do this work. And we came out with an entire slate of programs [designed] to serve the Jewish community of Maine. And we've actually ended up reaching more people, more effectively, over this period of time, probably than we ever have before. So we were all incredibly inspired—our first statewide Shabbat service, with all of the clergy of Maine—over 300 computers signed in, probably over 500 people coming together, right? [These participants were] Maine Jews that just wanted to pray together. 

Then, we did Ten Minutes of Torah [which we posted to Facebook]  twice a week with our rabbis, bringing Torah to the realities of quarantine and of a COVID [affected] America. We did Tisha B'Av together with the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. And we have mobilized, with the support of the Covenant Foundation and almost every synagogue in the state, to create High Holiday resources that are of the highest caliber to make these High Holidays special and relevant and rich in this season. None of this could have been possible if it weren't for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, which had been convening all of the clergy and all the Jewish institutions of our little state together for years, and also connecting the Jewish community of Maine with all the resources that are available in the United States and on a global scale. 

So the Center for Small Town Jewish Life has pivoted—we're busier than ever, we've really shone. And because we are a rural Jewish community, we've been working on teaching and connecting with our congregants through technology for years already. So a lot of this was familiar for those of us who need to [hop on platforms like] Skype to bar mitzvah tutor students that live three hours away from our synagogue, or when we need to lead prayers over Zoom during a snowstorm. We've been doing this work for quite a while and it was really amazing and a blessing that we could snap into action, so effectively, so quickly, during this pandemic.

Q: What does the Center contribute to the national Jewish landscape, and what is unique about its work?

I think that this is a very special moment for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life because we try and highlight two issues in the Jewish community that traditionally don't get a lot of attention and that people are invested in not paying attention to. One is Jewish life outside of major metropolitan areas. The Jewish community, especially in the philanthropic world, is often focused on return on investment in terms of numbers, and small communities by definition will never deliver large numbers, although in aggregate, there are about between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews in outlying areas, so we are a significant force, but we are often left out of discussions. We don’t have a  seat at the table and the specific issues that impact Jews that live in geographically [remote] and low-income areas are often neglected. However, because of this pandemic, all of a sudden, there are Jews from major metropolitan areas that are moving to places like Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont.

It's very difficult to buy a house in Central Maine right now, which I never thought would be the case. So all of a sudden, understanding the need to spread out Jewish resources beyond New York, Boston, D.C., and L.A.—we've been talking about it for years, but now I think we might get some traction on these issues. 

The other place where we play an important role is highlighting the importance of socioeconomic diversity in the Jewish community. It's extraordinarily rare that in discussions about Jewish programming, Jewish continuity, Jewish life, that we talk about not only middle-class and poor Jews, that can't afford the price of admission to the mainstream Jewish community, but also that much of this is geographically based because there is isn't just individual financial need, there's also communal financial need. So even in Beth Israel, this community, we have plenty of members that by any standard are well off, but because we live in an area that is poor, and that doesn't have a huge mass of resources communally for Jewish life, even individuals who might have individual resources suffer from a lack of access to high-level Jewish education and programming. 

I'll just give one example. This synagogue was founded in 1902. To my knowledge, we never had a synagogue trip to Israel, ever. And I think part of the reason we could never take the entire community to Israel is because this isn't an area where everybody can afford to go and it could have created huge fissures in the community to take a delegation to Israel. We had a donor and we fundraised so that every single congregant who wanted to go, regardless of ability to pay, could go. And so we had a very frugal, very bare-bones, trip to Israel that everybody loved–that strengthened our community and strengthened our connection to Israel. And it did so without excluding people that are ordinarily not considered or don't consider themselves worthy of certain types of core Jewish experiences. 

When I told this story to a colleague in a Boston suburb, this colleague said, "That's funny. In all the Israel trips that I've run, I've never thought critically about the cost." Right? This is going to be a huge issue. If it hasn't been an issue for Jewish communities yet, it will be soon. And for those of us in rural and small-town areas, issues around cost and dignity and Jewish identity are deeply entwined. And it's really time that the national Jewish community pay attention to this in every element of how we program, how we charge, how we convene, and what we think of as essential, and who we think of as essential. 

And when I think about the unique contribution of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life to the national Jewish community, it's saying, you know what, you can live in a geographically isolated place, you can be from any class, but you are valued, you are dignified, and we're going to make sure that you feel valued, welcomed, included, and provide access to you to engage in the best of Jewish life and Torah learning. That message isn't coming out enough in the national Jewish community, even at a time when we're focused so much on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are the voice at the table on this issue.

Q: Why do you love what you do?

I love what I do because whatever my small town community lacks in financial resources, we make up for in heart and commitment. I'll give one example. For years before Rosh Hashanah, every single year we get about six to eight congregants that provide a fully kosher catered meal to the entire community and to the entire Colby College Hillel. And last year, on Rosh Hashanah, we had 97 people packed into our little basement for a Rosh Hashanah meal, totally kosher, in the middle of Maine. It was really amazing. It brought me this immense sense of joy and satisfaction. And this year with Covid, most of us weren't ready to give up on the idea of a community meal. So that same group of volunteers, each member is picking a different day of the week [to cook in the Beth Israel kitchen] but they're all cooking a component of the meal. And after Rosh Hashanah services we'll be handing out kosher Rosh Hashanah meals so that everybody can go home and have a taste of brisket and roast chicken in this little rural town in the middle of Maine. We'll do what it takes with our own hands and our own hearts to make sure that tradition doesn't die and Jewish community remains alive in Maine. 

And then there's this other part of my job which is working at Colby College. And I love being a rabbi to a community where not everybody is Jewish. But everybody's interested for one reason or another in Jewish life. And I feel deeply grateful for the students who've taught me so much, who've been part of my life, and being able to bring Torah to students who ordinarily wouldn't get to enjoy those riches of Jewish civilization. Whether it's one of my students from Houston, Texas, raised in a Pentecostal household that got to learn Talmud with Ruth Calderon in Tel Aviv with me, or whether it's another one of my students from Florida who just texted me after graduating, saying, I need a blessing for my new apartment, and I sent her a Birkat ha-Bayit. And knowing that in her little apartment, there are a few words of Hebrew that will remind her of the Jewish community in Waterville, Maine. All of that, on top of making sure that Jewish kids from around the country that come to Waterville, Maine, know that they have a Jewish home here and a place where they can grow in their knowledge and observance, and can develop an adult Jewish identity under the loving mentorship of a great team of Jewish educators at Colby College. That is a unique pleasure and I wouldn't trade this job in for anything else.

Bethashley Cajuste, Colby College Class of 2020
Bethashley Cajuste, who graduated from Colby in 2020, received the college's prestigious Condon Medal, which honors the graduating senior who exhibits the finest qualities of citizenship and who makes the most significant contribution to the development of college life at Colby. Bethashley was selected by the senior class and the faculty as the student who best embodies a Colby career centered on engaged citizenship. She now works as an advocate for teens with Harmony at Home in Salinas, California.

Hi, my name is Bethashley. My pronouns are she, her, hers, and I'm now an alumna from Colby College. 

Q: How did you become involved with the Center during college?

A: I got connected with the Center for Small Town Jewish Life and I was invited to a Shabbat weekend with the current [Hillel] president at the time, Alex Wolansky, and was introduced into Jewish life that way. And it was something that was interesting because my first year at Colby, I don't think we, or I at least, experienced community in that way. It felt very odd being introduced because I'm like, I have no idea what's going on. I don't know the songs, and there's...a lot of procedures and processes and I'm like, am I supposed to join in? And even though it felt kind of awkward, or kind of interesting to just be an observer but also a participant, I still felt very welcomed, and I wasn't uncomfortable.

Q: What is Community Conversations?

A: I've participated/been to Community Conversations in the past. And I always enjoyed how it...involved different community experts, community thought leaders, and also brought the community to just have a conversation and be in fellowship together that way, and ask very hard-hitting questions, but make it [welcoming] so that you're settled in your uncomfortability.

Q: What was it like to be featured as a keynote panelist at Community Conversations in the fall of 2019?

A: I was very nervous, but I, thankfully, was able to rely on Rabbi [Erica] Asch and we kind of had a conversation, she brought her perspective, and I brought my perspective, being a black woman in the United States. And at that time, I think, what was—I don't want to say trending, but very important—was children being held in internment camps in Texas and Mexico and that border. So [I was] making sure that I'm bringing light to these issues and relating to them. ...Being part of that program, I think, was an honor, because it's always important to recognize the platform we're given. And so even though, because it was during midterms it was very hectic, it was very good for me to just process and be in self-reflection and be a part of that. So that was, that was a great opportunity.

Q: What was it like to travel to Israel and the Palestinian Authority with the Center in December 2019?

A: The trip to Israel was a kind of social-cultural, I'd say, immersion into understanding not only Israeli politics but the Israeli-Palestinian relations and that conflict. Even being there it was just oddly surreal. So before we learned what we'd expect, like the language barrier—not the language barrier, but the languages, the diversity within Judaism and within the country in general. So basic things we learned, but when we got there it was like...this still feels, it was a weird experience that, I think, going in I expected to feel certain things, but allowing myself to just be in the country and engage with different speakers and kind of hear their thoughts about what Israeli life looks like and what Palestinian life looks like, and what are those differences, those similarities, what that looks like. 

I was glad that even though I feel like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was something well-talked about within Colby spaces, at least academic spaces, I didn't have a great understanding. So when I came in, I was just kind of a sponge taking a lot of things in, and so I expected to come out with a clear answer, right? So I'm like, okay, I have done my research now this is the process—to do...trials and then come out with an answer. And I did not come out with...[laughs]. I think I came out more confused than I was in the beginning. But I think that it was still common, because I feel like it speaks to Israeli culture, I think I was able to appreciate that confusion. ...The fact that I'm confused and people are confused, but they're very honest and open about it. They're like, we don't know the answers, this is still an ongoing process, with something that in the U.S. I feel like people try to just bandage, so I...very much appreciated the honesty about the lack of clarity.

I think it was a humbling experience, not only being able to go to a country that's so representative of different religions, but also of different cultures. And it was an amazing time to be with other Colby students and...engage with their thoughts and beliefs in that way.

Q: How did being part of the Maine Jewish community impact your college experience?

Again, going back to what I said earlier, just about the sense of community, I think I was taking away being reflective of my four years, so that's the one thing that I learned and held on to the most— the idea that community doesn't always have to look like people who look like you. And so that, for me, was important. And making sure to...practice important values to me and selflessness and community, and then realizing from the Jewish community itself, that those are some of the core key values. I'm like—Ah, this resonates a lot! And that was something I held on to. I think also just on the aspect of faith, learning more about different faith practices, and myself being Christian, and then...expanding and relating the two—just the way people practice spirituality in general—really expanded my faith, I'd say, and again gave me more...not humility...but I was kinder to myself.

Kenden Alfond, Supporter of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life
Kenden Alfond grew up in the Waterville area, and recently relocated from Cambodia to Paris, France, with her family. When not working as a psychotherapist, Kenden is cooking and writing for her blog, The Jewish Food Hero, which brings healthy, plant-based recipes and Jewish wisdom to her readers. She is the author of two cookbooks, the most recent, Feeding Women of the Bible, is now available in print.

My name is Kenden Alfond and I grew up in Dexter and Waterville, Maine.

Q: How did growing up in rural Maine impact your Jewish identity and your sense of belonging in the Jewish community?

Growing up in Dexter and Waterville, I definitely felt a part of the Jewish community there—which is mostly my family. But I think that I definitely felt different from people that grew up in a more urban or larger Jewish community.

Q: How did your small-town Jewish identity impact you as you left Maine and became part of more urban Jewish communities?

I feel that although I had a strong sense of a Jewish identity, I felt like I was really missing, like almost 80 percent of the cultural knowledge and touchpoints in America. So I was not really able to join those conversations with a lot of confidence or know-how.

Q: How do you think your Jewish experience would have been different if the Center had existed when you were growing up?

...It would have changed my life. Because I would have...listen, there are so many things going on in the Jewish community that are available to kids. There's youth groups, there's educational [opportunities], but none of that was available. And I would have had a sense of belonging, being a part of the community. I could have, I would have joined Hillel in college. I mean, I just think I would have been much less alone. 

Q: How does your experience as a small-town Jew impact the way you parent?

Well, I think I probably repeated a lot of things…[my daughter] grew up in a pretty rural environment, until now. And I think that that just means, there's—when you grow up in an urban area, it's almost like you don't need to do anything except just breathe to get everything, right? You just drop your kid off at the JCC, you go to the Hebrew school, but if you grew up in a rural area, everything that you do to engage with Jewish life is on you. It's on you and it's because you're going to make it happen and you're going to be intentional about it. So you have to make a large effort.

Q: What does the future of these rural Jewish communities look like without support from the national Jewish community?

If people don't engage with rural Jews in America, then after one or two generations, that's it. They're not with us anymore.

Q: If there was one message you could share about the Maine Jewish community with Jews across the U.S. and the world what would that be?

This idea that greatness in the Jewish community does not come from the family can come from the places that you least expect it. I think that [greatness] is what Jews in rural America could [attain] if people engage with them.