Rav Rachel Isaacs talks about being gay and Jewish in the small town of Waterville, about moving from New Jersey to Maine, and about giving the benediction at the White House Hanukkah party.
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.