I was frustrated. As far as I could tell, many Colby students didn’t understand or know how to engage with our local community members. I figured this was largely for socioeconomic reasons. After all, as a low-income student from conservative rural New England, I struggled to feel heard or understood at Colby. Waterville felt far more like home to me than Colby did.
All this was bubbling up for me during a Center for Small Town Jewish Life meeting last fall as we were discussing divides in our community. So I blurted out, “What if we create a class in which students learn from community members and build real relationships?” As I tried to explain my frustration, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs and others around the table nodded and agreed: maybe that was something we could do.
By the time I came back from a semester studying abroad, Rabbi David Freidenreich had turned what was barely half of an idea into a full-fledged course proposal. We were going to focus on the intersection of religious traditions and socioeconomic class to better understand our community. In particular, we would talk about poverty and class dynamics in Waterville, as well as how local religious communities were seeking to alleviate poverty.
The Center for Small Town Jewish Life took my frustration and my kernel of an idea and turned it into something productive and tangible: a real course with nine students eager to learn and engage. These students partnered with local faith-based organizations to volunteer and to interview them about what they do and why. The course met twice a week in the Religious Studies seminar room to discuss our volunteer placements and our course readings, which ranged from statistics on hunger in Maine to Jill Jacobs’ There Shall Be No Needy on a Jewish response to poverty.
In many ways, we were surprised by what we discovered: faith-based poverty relief work in Waterville is thriving. Yes, many of these organizations are struggling for volunteers and funds, and some organizations lack networks with others that would increase their capacity, but they are making a real difference. National trends in the U.S. indicate that it is rare to find a congregation actively engaged in social services, but in Waterville we have several. There are free meals every day of the week for those who need them, as well as access to free toiletries, funds for heating, gas, and security deposits; these are supplemented by additional up-and-coming homeless ministries and spiritual care.
Our culminating project was to write a full report about what these religious communities are doing to address poverty in Waterville, profiling over 20 of the remarkable leaders in our community. We hope this report will enlighten the greater Waterville community to all the work these organizations are doing and inspire further volunteering, donations, and interreligious collaboration.
As the semester is coming to a close and students are reflecting on their experiences, I think we are all feeling a strong sense of community. This course gave us the opportunity to work together as a team with one vision: to tell the important stories about these religious organizations that aren’t being told, and to inspire further poverty relief work in Waterville. More than that, students were able to build real connections by collaborating with community members to tell their stories and serve alongside them.
As a student helping put this course together, I worked with community partners and religious leaders to address the real issues facing Waterville. The Center for Small Town Jewish Life valued me as an equal contributor in creating this course and helped me channel my frustration into something good, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. I’m excited to see what comes out of this course, and hopeful that the relationships built here will grow into something bigger than we could have imagined.
Tori Paquette ’20
CSTJL Engagement Fellow