For my first Shabbat at Beth Israel in Waterville, I planned an event: Friday-night dinner, services, and learning. On Friday, my husband and I spent hours making quiche, challah, fresh salad, and cookie-dough brownie bars. An hour before the event started, a breathless congregant whom I had not yet met came in the door apologetically. After introducing herself warmly, she explained why she was there, even though she couldn’t make it to tonight’s dinner. “They were doing construction work here today, I saw you were holding a dinner and I meant to come in to clean before you arrived, I’m so sorry I didn’t get here earlier!” Of course, we had long ago wiped down any dust in the mostly sparklingly clean kitchen, but that set the tone: Here in Maine, people feel ownership over the organizations they are part of and a responsibility to welcome guests, and they pitch in unasked to make community activities a success. As a summer rabbinical student fellow for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, I have spent the past two months primarily in Waterville and Augusta leading services, teaching classes, meeting members of the community, working with children and teens, and learning from some amazingly talented rabbis and Jewish professionals. I have experienced a range of creative programs and out-of-the-box perspectives on finding ways to make Judaism accessible and to share Jewish resources with people in a way that enhances and fits in with their lives.
A fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York originally from the Boston area, I was active in the lay leadership of a number of small communities prior to entering rabbinical school. One of the main reasons I decided to become a rabbi was my desire to continue helping people find what it is about Judaism that inspires them, and that has the potential to enhance their lives. Here in Maine, I’ve been inspired by the attitude summed up by the Theodore Herzl quote:, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Programs and initiatives, which some might call impossible—given the limited resources and widely dispersed community—have not only happened but have thrived. Who would have thought it could be possible to hold an affordable three-day kosher conference for more than 200 people with speakers from across the country? Bringing in a kosher caterer from Boston would be prohibitively expensive, and yet without kosher food, such a conference could not serve the full breadth of the Jewish community. Having lived in cities with multiple kosher caterers, it had never occurred to me that such an event could be possible without one. And yet, this barrier did not stop the staff of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. The day before the conference, Rabbi Isaacs, two helpers, and I descended on the Thomas College kitchen ready to scrub, boil, and heat every piece of equipment that our caterers would use. After a training session and careful supervision of all ingredients, the college’s non-kosher caterers were ready to prepare delicious vegetarian kosher cuisine. And it was worth the effort—the energy, learning, and sense of community at the conference blew me away. I have been inspired by the can-do spirit and commitment to doing what it takes to support the Jewish community that I have experienced here in Maine, and I hope to bring that spirit and commitment with me wherever I go.
-Leora Kling Perkins