WATERVILLE, Maine — The rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, the city’s Conservative synagogue, has been named one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis by the Jewish Daily Forward, a newspaper based in New York City.
Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, 31, of Waterville was one of more than two dozen men and women selected from hundreds of nominations, according to editor Jane Eisner.
“After a careful process of reading, sifting, tabulating and fact-checking, we chose 28 men and women whose stories are most telling and compelling,” she said in announcing the winners. “These rabbis range in age from 28 to 81 years old, encompassing all major denominations and then some; they work in established synagogues and in new ones; in hospitals, universities and day schools, and one served in the military.”
Isaacs, who splits her time between the synagogue and Colby College, where she serves as a chaplain and teaches, said Tuesday the honor “is a great blessing.”
“It reinforces for me how lucky I am to serve both Beth Israel and Colby,” the rabbi said. “It shows how blessed I am be in a community where the people I serve are appreciative and loving.”
More than a dozen members of Isaacs’ congregation jointly nominated her to the Forward contest.
“Together we have been able to have the profound experience of having a big-time, brilliant, kind, funny, devoted rabbi that any shul in the country would fight over,” Tiffany Lopes, president of the synagogue, said in nominating Isaacs. “Our membership is up. Colby Hillel is thriving. We are in the midst of very exciting activity as our rabbi creates the first-ever Center for Jewish Life in a small town. We are incredibly blessed to have her in our community. She is our bright light.”
Raised in a conservative synagogue in New Jersey, Isaacs graduated from Wellesley College in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in religion. While an undergraduate, she studied in Israel, then entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Isaacs first came to Waterville during her final year as a rabbinical student in the 2010-2011 as part of the Legacy Heritage Rabbinic Fellow program. She would fly up once a month, stay for four days, and was in town for the major holidays.
As her time for graduation and ordination neared, Lopes and other board members began working to figure out a way to keep her on as rabbi but the synagogue could only afford a half-time spiritual leader.
“Colby really helped make up the other half,” Isaacs said. “The college needed a Hebrew professor and between that and Hillel [the Jewish student organization] everyone came together to create a full-time position.”
The college also provides an on-campus apartment where Isaacs lives with her wife Melanie Weiss. The couple was married in Maine in April.
The rabbi said that she has worked hard to integrate her work at the shul and her work on campus.
“No two days of my job are ever alike,” she said Tuesday. “It really depends who needs me more how much time I spend where.”
When Isaacs began serving the congregation, it had about 25 member units. Today, it has 55, including members of Hillel. The rabbi also holds Talmud study groups online and teaches Jewish theology at a Thai restaurant in Waterville. During good weather, Saturday services are conducted outside during hikes instead of in the synagogue.
“People didn’t want to sit in synagogue for 2½ hours on a beautiful Saturday morning,” she said. “When we worship outside we can be closer to God being surrounded by God’s creation. Even though I’m a traditionally oriented rabbi, I’m not tied to a traditional pulpit. I’m constantly thinking with all the people I work with, ‘How can I make Judaism work this community?’ We have to rethink the delivery system so people are excited about Judaism.”
With Colby, Isaacs worked to form the Center for Jewish Life. It will sponsor a three-day seminar, the Maine Jewish Life Conference on campus June 3-5. The program will include a performance by the Casco Bay Tumbler, a Maine klezmer band. Maine State Senate President Justin Alfond will be the keynote speaker.
The rabbi will lead Jewish college students in Maine on an all-expenses-paid tour of Israel June 18-28 for Birthright.
All of the activities in Waterville were what led Robert Sezak, 61, of Fairfield to join members of the congregation in nominating Isaacs for the “Most Inspiring Rabbi” award.
“She is a young scholar who is able to relate well with old and young alike,” he said Wednesday in an email. “Young at heart and wise beyond her years, Rabbi Isaacs has brought new life and vitality into a shrinking Jewish community while renewing the energy of the Colby College Hillel. The Waterville community and Colby College are most fortunate to have such a person as wonderful as Rabbi Isaacs.”
For information about Congregation Beth Israel in Waterville, call 872-7551 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.