WATERVILLE — Rachel Isaacs came to Waterville last year from New York on a fellowship that allowed her to be a student rabbi at both Beth Israel Congregation and Colby College.

When she completed her studies and became a rabbi in May, she had lots of opportunities to work elsewhere in the U.S.

But she chose Waterville.

“I really loved the congregation from the beginning,” she said of Beth Israel. “People were just very warm and very earnest and authentic. There were other offers, and the more I pursued other appointments, the more I felt that I didn’t want to leave.”

Isaacs, 28, is the new part-time rabbi for Beth Israel, having performed her first official service at the synagogue July 15. She also is a part-time Jewish chaplain at Colby and will teach Hebrew and Jewish theology there. She will be part of Hillel, a student Jewish organization on campus.

Isaacs is a gift to the community and to the synagogue, which has seen declining membership as older people pass on, according to Tiffany Lopes, president of the synagogue’s board of directors.

Lopes says Isaacs’ energy, enthusiasm and skills will help to boost membership and draw more young families to Beth Israel.

“She’s young and brilliant and thoughtful,” Lopes said. “She’s poised and very good with people.”

Rabbi Raymond Krinsky served the congregation 27 years before retiring in 2006; Cantor Deborah Marlowe has been the synagogue’s religious and educational leader since then. Marlowe plans to remain a member of the congregation, Lopes said.

Beth Israel serves about 30 families, whose members range in age from seven months to 92 years. Ten years ago the synagogue served about 70 families. With a struggle to maintain financial stability, Beth Israel last year applied to Legacy Heritage Limited for a grant to have a rabbinic student come to Waterville.

Ten students were dispatched to synagogues around the U.S. that were small and had no rabbi, according to Lopes. Isaacs was sent to Waterville.

“For the past year, she has been flying from New York to Portland and a member of the congregation has picked her up,” Lopes said. “It has been a year-long interview. We quickly developed a really great relationship with Rachel, and she, in turn, felt a great connection with us.”

Lopes said Isaacs is nonjudgmental, gracious and accepting of people and has provided intellectual stimulation to both younger and older people at Beth Israel and Colby. She will be in Waterville three weekends a month, to officiate services Fridays and Saturdays at both the synagogue and Colby.

Isaacs said her two main goals are to teach and make Judaism accessible and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of their religious background, and she wants to do social justice work, dealing with poverty. Being in a religious community is about taking the extra step in order to be holy and hold oneself to a higher standard, she said.

Isaacs grew up in central New Jersey in a Conservative congregation such as Beth Israel’s.

“What makes the Conservative movement unique is that we consider ourselves to be bound by the norms and strictures of Jewish law, but we believe law can be modified and changed based on evolving needs of each generation,” Isaacs said.

In the Conservative movement, rabbis on a special committee have authority to change law to fit both the needs of a community and the changes that have occurred through time, according to Isaacs.

Lopes said Isaacs already has helped to draw Colby students to synagogue activities, and younger congregants are connecting with her.

“Unless we do something to touch the hearts of the modern family to make them want to be a part of the community, and explore their faith, I think it’s going to continue to dwindle,” Lopes said.

Isaacs acknowledges the challenge in trying to build numbers, but sees it as an opportunity.

“It’s a small community and I can develop personal relationships with all the congregants, which is not the norm,” she said. “I’m really excited about working at Beth Israel. I think that I have the unique advantage of not starting from scratch. It’s a community that I know and that I’ve chosen and that I love.”

A 2005 graduate of Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in religion, Isaacs spent part of her time as an undergraduate studying in Israel. She also studied rabbinics in Israel after graduation.

She holds a master’s degree in Jewish studies and ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where she studied five years.

She said she was particularly touched by the warmth she received while a student rabbi in Waterville. Congregants baked her meals, often with ingredients from their gardens. They also gathered for potluck dinners.

“That’s very unusual,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like that. It’s unique. It made me fall in love with the congregation from the beginning.”

Sid Geller, a member of the board of directors and former president, said the synagogue lost some families to the Augusta temple because they moved from the Conservative to the Reform movement.

The number of students attending Hebrew school at Beth Israel also has decreased over the last several years. Being a small synagogue, it cannot afford to fund a full-time rabbi position, so being able to share Isaacs with Colby is a great benefit, according to Geller.

“What I think will happen and I’m hoping will happen is that Rachel will be able to interest more folks who have children to be members, so we have a viable Hebrew school again,” he said.

Geller, who has been a Beth Israel member since 1963, was one of those who drove Isaacs from Portland to Waterville a few times when she was a student.

“I got to know her pretty well,” he said. “She’s a great person.”

Isaacs hopes people come to Beth Israel who have never been there before, to join in a commitment to Torah, worship and tikkun olam, or a mission to repair the world.

“We will be providing first-rate learning, soulful prayer filled with song, thoughtful spiritual direction and a community that will embrace everyone of all backgrounds and families,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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