Few in Number, Rich in Ruach



November 8, 2016

My senior year of high school, the cantor at my local synagogue offered a course called, “Being Jewish in College.” Attendees met weekly for about a month to discuss the challenges of being a Jewish college student. At the first session, I was asked to share my application list, which included several small liberal arts colleges. In response, the cantor warned me that with a small school comes a small Jewish population. Having already applied, I freaked out.

Less than a year later, nonetheless, I arrived on the campus of Colby College. I nervously walked into my first Colby Hillel event, and within minutes found myself blissfully noshing on sushi and laughing among fellow first-years. Relieved, I confidently added my name to the Hillel email list. Little did I know I was joining far more than just a student club.  

My inbox began filling with information about Hillel events and I learned that there is a synagogue minutes from campus. Having grown up in Nashua, New Hampshire, where my local synagogue— home to 280 families— always played a big role in my life, I could not wait to check it out.

My first visit to the Beth Israel Congregation (BIC) was a culture shock. In contrast to the contemporary-style building where I grew up praying, the shul’s pink walls, ’60s-style floral curtains, and the potluck dinner of mac and cheese and Israeli salad following services felt nontraditional, yet charming. However, the building’s décor is just the beginning of BIC’s charm.

While the BIC is fewer than 100 families in size, it is rich in ruach. One night when searching for dinner plates in the synagogue kitchen, I found a collection of antique teacups with mismatching saucers. A congregant explained in a museum curator’s tone that these were previously used at tea parties hosted by female congregants. BIC congregants take pride in their synagogue and its history. They remain open to nontraditional approaches to Judaism that keep Jewish life in Waterville vibrant for both BIC congregants and Colby students.

The relationship between Colby Hillel and the BIC is sustained by the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, run by Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, Colby Hillel advisor and local rabbi. The center promotes collaboration between the two communities and, in turn, strengthens both.

When Rabbi Isaacs was blessed with a beautiful baby girl this past spring, she asked me if I would lead a Shabbat service for the BIC in her absence. I had been leading services for Colby Hillel, but as a college first-year, the opportunity still came as a shock.

When my assigned Shabbat arrived, I was terrified, but my nerves subsided upon realizing I recognized all of the attendees: three Colby students and two Waterville congregants. Short of a minyan, we decided to hold services in the function hall with chairs in a circle, Colby Hillel-style. With the warmth of my company, my initially nerve-racking evening became a Shabbat shalom.

Now that I have completed my first year at Colby, I realize that while my cantor was right— small liberal arts colleges have smaller Jewish populations than larger universities— Jewish life at Colby and other liberal arts colleges can be just as vibrant. Ironically, instead of lacking opportunities, you will find yourself pursuing ones in a community where your contributions are sure to be recognized.

I have also learned that joining Colby Hillel means joining a family of Hillel students and BIC congregants. You will be invited to Shabbat dinner at congregants’ homes because they have “brisket sitting in the freezer.” You will eat kosher chicken wings and watch the Patriots game together. Most important, you will have opportunities you never could have foreseen.

Don’t let the numbers scare you because as Rabbi Larry Milder sings, “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish” and a small liberal arts college like Colby is a great place for a Jew to go.  

Gabriella Foster is a sophomore at Colby College in Maine and an active member of both Colby College Hillel and the Beth Israel Congregation.

Colby Hillel students enjoy breakfast for dinner at the first Shabbat meal of the fall semester this year.
Above right: Gabriella explains the history of the BIC tea cups to a peer.