During its brief existence, Colby’s Center for Small Town Jewish Life has fundamentally improved the lives of Jewish people on campus and in Waterville, and now it has secured several important grants that will allow it to expand its work on a national scale through its community-building Makom Fellowship Program.
The fellowship will launch this spring and provide training, mentorship, and peer support for emerging rabbis and other Jewish leaders to serve small Jewish communities across the country.
Makom is the Hebrew word for “place.”
Modeled after the work the Center for Small Town Jewish Life has accomplished in Waterville since the center began in 2015, the Makom Fellowship Program recently secured $150,000 over three years from the Covenant Foundation, $100,000 over two years from the Righteous Persons Foundation, a $30,000 commitment from the Natan Fund, and several other donations.
Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, Colby’s inaugural Dorothy “Bibby” Levine Alfond Chair in Jewish Studies and the center’s executive director, as well as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, said the funding allows the Center for Small Town Jewish Life to expand its reach and influence. The center’s mission is to cultivate vibrant Jewish communities that are socially equitable, multigenerational, and geographically diverse.
The center’s work has never been timelier.
More than 1 million American Jews—one in every eight—live in a county with fewer than 10,000 Jewish people, yet many small communities lack emerging Jewish professionals to help lead them. The Makom Fellowship will help some Jewish communities navigate the shift in demographics by encouraging and training rabbis, cantors, and directors to serve in small towns.
“With Covid, we have seen a huge influx of Jews into Maine and other small, rural states. Jewish people are moving out of cities to small towns,” Isaacs said. “This is the right idea at the right time. As the demographic shifts were happening, as we developed a strong proof-of-concept with our work in Maine, and as our national reputation grew, our profile began snowballing. One grant led to another.”
For its first cohort of fellows, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life has recruited synagogues in Bangor, Maine; Bennington, Vt.; Bristol, Tenn.; Greenville, S.C.; and Honolulu, Hawaii. Each community will hire its own leader, and the Center for Small Town Jewish Life will train them over a three-year period. The goal is to work with a new cohort of five every year, so there will be 15 new leaders cycling through at any given time, once the program is fully up and running.
David M. Freidenreich, Pulver Family Professor of Jewish Studies and associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, compared the Makom Fellowship to a medical residency that trains doctors to work in rural areas. “If you give a doctor a hands-on experience outside the major metros, they are much more likely to stay outside the major metros. That is exactly what we are trying to do,” he said. “The Makom Fellowship is a program to train people who share our passion for strengthening Jewish life in small communities and enabling them to apply the same lessons we have learned in Waterville in the communities where they are embedded.
“We root everything the center does locally in a strong sense of place, of being in Maine,” Freidenreich said. “Fellows in the Makom program will empower their communities to express Jewishness in terms of their own sense of place.”
Beyond its successful fundraising effort to support the fellowship, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life has attracted the attention of several national Jewish organizations. The Jewish Federations of North America, Reconstructing Judaism, the Union of Reform Judaism, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism have recognized the importance of the fellowship program and encouraged their communities to support it.
Shayna Rose Triebwasser, executive director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, said the work of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life resonated with her organization because it meets “tangible needs at the community level” and is actively engaged in ongoing conversations about the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish life.
Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw after Speilberg directed Schindler’s List, the foundation is dedicated to building a more just and vibrant future for the Jewish community and beyond, Triebwasser said.
“The Righteous Persons Foundation’s work is guided by the belief that the 3,500-year-old Jewish story has resonance today. So a big part of our work is looking for those points of connection and meaning-making, and then making grants to help them grow,” she said. “When I learned that an estimated 1 million American Jews—and counting—live in rural locations and that many of these rural Jewish communities are hungry for more Jewish programming, leadership, and the resources to come together, it felt important to find a strategic way to lend support.”
The Covenant Foundation has supported the work of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life for several years, and in 2020 awarded Isaacs with its Pomegranate Prize, which is given to emerging leaders in Jewish education. Joni Blinderman, the foundation’s executive director, said the Makom Fellowship appealed to the foundation because of its potential to become a residency-style professional development program for emerging Jewish leaders.
“Reaching Jews in small communities has been a sustained objective of the Covenant Foundation from the time of our inception 30 years ago,” Blinderman said. “In particular, this project attracted our attention because it aims to create a nationwide network of small town Jewish communal leaders. We know that in small Jewish communities, success depends on effective working relationships with lay leaders. This fellowship is innovative in that it trains lay partners alongside Jewish communal professionals.”
By investing in leaders who choose to serve small communities, the Makom Fellowship will help those communities attract top talent by offering the practical training, mentorship, and peer support that emerging professionals seek as they launch their careers, she said.
Since its inception, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life has been recognized as an innovative Jewish organization because of its ability to create programs that encourage equitable Jewish life across class and geography. The center presents academic and community programs and hosts the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, Jewish youth camps, and other activities.
The ascent of the center has mirrored that of its executive director. The Jewish Daily Forward named Isaacs one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” in 2014, and in 2016 former President Barack Obama invited her to the White House to deliver a Hanukkah blessing in the East Room.
For all its success and accolades, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life remains rooted in Waterville and Colby, and that will never change, Isaacs said. “If we abandon our first priority, everything else will fall apart. This is our home. This is where we show our stuff,” she said.
“Our focus will always be Colby students and Waterville, Maine. They know if they are sick, they are going to get chicken soup delivered to their dorm. If they are in quarantine, they will get a care package. If they are hungry, we will bring them brisket to the Pugh Center.”
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