The Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College is a partnership between Colby Hillel, Colby’s interdisciplinary Jewish studies program, and Beth Israel Congregation, the local synagogue in Waterville, Maine. Through this collaborative effort the Center will showcase how academic institutions and synagogues can work together to improve the cultural life of small towns while enriching the education of college students and building affinity for the Jewish religion and culture.
The Center will focus on addressing the needs of Jewish students at small colleges and the small communities in which they live. We believe that the needs of both constituencies are best served by fostering fruitful and synergistic relationships between synagogues and small college Hillels, including an innovative shared staff model. We provide visionary, inspiring, and accessible educational and cultural programs to Jewish communities throughout Maine by bringing the best national resources to small communities and by cultivating and strengthening relationships among synagogues and small colleges.
We are driven by a passion for serving Jews of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The mainstream Jewish community does not currently adequately serve Jewish communities and individuals who do not have the financial resources to live in major urban areas. We are motivated by the deep belief that Jews of all socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds have something to contribute and deserve the best of Jewish learning and community. We also believe that students at small liberal arts colleges should not have to choose between the intimate community of a small college and the vibrant Jewish life found at large universities. We will develop the resources to provide the best of Jewish civilization at these underserved campuses. Moreover, through offering leadership training we will create pathways from Jewish adolescence to Jewish adult leadership, further integrating small college Hillels with small-town synagogues.
As a fledging initiative, the Center provides a collaborative approach for connecting Jews to each other through Jewish religion, spirituality, and learning, while taking a pluralistic approach to Jewish life. What distinguishes the Center are its ethos and successful track record of collaboration and its focus on preparing young adults to be tomorrow’s Jewish leaders. One of our hallmark programs is the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, a state-wide conference that brings the jewels (music, art, and learning) of the Jewish world to the underserved Jewish communities of Maine. This conference’s success in bringing all of the communities of Maine together garnered international attention in Ha’aretz. “For us it was a matter of getting our children together with other Jews,” said Deena Weinstein, a longtime Maine resident who has been attending the conference for years.
We have also brought all of the small communities of mid-Maine together through our yearly mid-Maine Jewish Funtensive, which provides low-cost Hebrew-immersive programming to Jewish children in Maine whose families cannot afford traditional Jewish summer camps.
To continue the successful integration of the campus and town communities in meaningful and innovative ways, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life will continue to develop exemplary programming, build leadership development initiatives, design conferences and workshops, and create additional “town/gown” partnerships to foster Jewish life and learning. At the same time, the Center will research best practices in programming, outreach, and leadership in communities around the country, learning more about what small colleges and small towns need to create vibrant, collaborative centers for Jewish living. The Center will also establish guidelines and methodologies that other small communities can use to replicate Waterville’s success.
We seek funding to expand upon our integration in Waterville, create a unique knowledge- base through innovative programming and partnerships, and develop and share a replicable model for systemic change initially across New England and ultimately across the rest of the country.
The Center exemplifies Natan’s mission, priorities and culture – developing an emerging model of Jewish connection, building Jewish communities, and creating new ways to access Jewish life. With a strong focus on young adults and those currently underserved by the mainstream Jewish community, the specific programs that would immediately benefit from grant funding include: the Maine Conference for Jewish Life; the Jewish Student Leaders Fellows Program from small college Hillels to engage in intensive learning and best leadership practices; the annual mid-Maine Jewish Funtensive providing low-cost Hebrew-immersive programming; the Waterville Jewish Leadership Initiative; and, the Community Conversations Program. The Center has strong leadership on its National Advisory Board and has the full commitment of the community – the next crucial step is funding to actualize excellence across the programs and replicate the successful ideas on a regional scale.
The demonstrated success of the pilot phase in the city of Waterville has positioned us to scale beyond the local community. An initial grant from the Natan Foundation will establish the prestige and funding base to further the proof of concept and to develop other funding opportunities in the near future.
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