The Ethos of Rural Life Is Everyone’s Ethos Now

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs serves as the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, Maine and directs the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College.

A few weeks ago I went out to buy my annual supply of seed potatoes. I got into our family’s small Subaru sedan and drove slightly south of Augusta—Maine’s state capital— to a local agricultural superstore. I put on my mask as I entered, passing two or three people along the way. Digging through the large bins, I chose blue, Yukon Gold, and Kennebec potatoes, placed them in the complimentary paper bags, and brought them back home to prepare for this year’s planting. As a 37-year-old rabbi raised in the New York metropolitan area, I never imagined that I would feed my family with crops I planted, tended, and harvested myself. Now, having spent the past 10 years in Maine, I am thankful that I have the resources and the practical skills to feed my family for months without shopping at a supermarket.

All of a sudden, after years of feeling deeply peripheral, we’ve discovered that the ethos that has sustained our ecosystems—Jewish, agricultural, and social—here in Maine has become crucial to weathering this storm. Our brand of Jewish leadership and life is no longer an outlier; it represents a resilient species of Jewish life that is not easily discouraged.

Where does the greater Jewish community go from here? It may look a lot more like our community in Maine: stripped down, collaborative, scrappy, self-sufficient, capable, and pliant. Our rabbis have already hosted one online statewide Shabbat service with nine clergy and close to 500 participants attending, and our second statewide service is poised to be larger. We are used to pulling together and pooling our resources to make Jewish life work. It’s been a long time since any of our small synagogues could really do much on a large scale alone. It has been decades since any of us could offer regularly catered meals, or budget swag into our conferences and events. Fewer and fewer of our congregants can afford dues, yet our synagogues have been growing in size and strength consistently over the past decade. Maine rabbis know what it is to be approached regularly for financial help from those we serve. Our clergy discretionary accounts are more often used to cover college application fees, medical expenses and utility bills than scholarships for trips abroad or fundraisers for causes in far-away places.

In the years to come, more of us will be growing our own potatoes. We will probably get closer to the chickens who lay our eggs. We will feel a sense that we have sacrificed something truly precious when we crack an egg for our challah or peel a potato for our Hanukkah latkes.

You will be visiting us in Maine soon, if not physically, then as observers of, and then participants in, our way of life. Together we will return to a potent awareness of the fragility of our existence, an awareness that would be deeply familiar to many of our ancestors. Our lives will feel dirty, and real, and precious.