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March 28, 2023

Reflections from Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

Reflections from Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

Shabbat shalom. It’s amazing to be here at Central Synagogue, to be in the company of hundreds, if not thousands throughout the world celebrating the gift of Shabbat, a day of rest, abundance, and if we’re doing it right, real peace. Friday, yom hashishi, the sixth day of the week, is the day that we remember God’s love through the gift of double portions. We learn in the Book of Exodus that on Fridays God blessed us with a double portion of manna before the setting of the sun, an abundance we had the opportunity to gather, so that we—each and every one (kol echad v’echad) could be sated and restful and peaceful on the Sabbath.

We learn Exodus 16:22

(כב) וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֗י לָֽקְט֥וּ לֶ֙חֶם֙ מִשְׁנֶ֔ה שְׁנֵ֥י הָעֹ֖מֶר לָאֶחָ֑ד וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ ...

(22) On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, lechem mishneh, two omers l’echad for every individual…

You may have noticed that we always bless two uncut loaves of bread for Shabbat meals, known as Lechem Mishneh. This is why, as a remembrance of God’s grace in the desert. It didn’t matter who we were or if our behaviors made us deserving—each week God provided us with shnei ha’omer, two omers, two portions of food on Friday afternoons, so that everyone would know a day without hunger, without worry, and without toil.

Now, if you’d give me the privilege, I want to take you on a journey with me, not a desert expanse, but rather to someplace with a lot more snow—Maine, which is also a place with a different lechem mishneh story. It can get really cold in Maine, but it doesn’t lack warmth; in fact, it is one of the warmest places I have ever lived. I want you to close your eyes, and go there with me, to my home away from home, Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville. When you walk in the back door, you’re greeted with a faint scent of kosher matzah ball soup mixed with the slightest hint of mildew from a 70-year-year old building that can’t quite manage its moisture anymore.

And on your left, you’ll see the kitchen, the timeless heart and soul of our congregation. It is often where the most invaluable Torah is taught and learned. That happened a few years ago, when my wife, Mel, was joined one snowy Saturday night by our rabbinical intern:

“Mel,” he asked, “do you always need to make this many sandwiches for the food pantry?”
“No,” she replied, “demand has gone up over the past few years, but we always need to make double at the end of the month.”
“Why,” he inquired, “should you need to make any more at the end of the month than at the beginning?”

 Mel stood there somewhat stunned by a question that should not have felt like a Talmudic riddle. How could he not know? I am sure he knew why we blessed two challot for each Shabbat meal, but why does he not know why we need to make double the number of sandwiches at the end of the month?

“Most of the clients we serve, some of whom are members of our own congregation,” she explained, “rely on WIC and EBT, government benefits that are issued at the beginning of each month and that often run out by the end, especially in families with children.”
“Oh, okay. I didn’t know that,” he said with the humble grace that endeared him so deeply to all of us at Beth Israel.

He didn’t understand the significance of the double portion at the end of the month, but the truth of the matter is before I came to Waterville, I didn’t. I knew nothing about communities like Waterville. And what I thought I knew was not only wrong, but actually, in retrospect, was harmful and offensive. And, if I did think about class differences when I lived in Brooklyn, I rarely thought about it in connection to the Jewish community.

But my ignorance and that of my student should not surprise us. Because how many of us really talk honestly about class? Not many. What we need to surface is that class isn’t just about money, it’s a messy alchemy of financial wealth, social connections, political and cultural power, the opportunities one encounters in their lifetime, and the communal regard they receive. To put it more concretely, someone can have the money—through personal resources of scholarships—to attend a Jewish summer camp. But class is also knowing which brands everyone else is wearing, knowing where to access those in-fashion clothes, and being able to own them. The trickiness of class is what brought one of my Maine rabbinic colleagues to warn me about sending the kids in my congregation to major Jewish summer camps, “Even if you can get them the scholarship, Rachel,” she said, “the teasing they might endure might not make it worth it.”

Why aren’t we talking about class? The topic is tender because class is inextricably linked with our dignity. In Hebrew, the word for dignity is kavod and it shares the same root with kaved, heavy. Dignity is about how much leverage we have—in creating a world that gives us what we need and brings us into spaces with the promise of fullness, respect, and agency. And the inequitable distribution of this kavod is impacting the ability of the American Jewish establishment to sustain functional, holy communities equitably nationwide.

So where can we go from here? First, we must acknowledge that over the past 50 years wealth and social power have been increasingly concentrated in 12 metro areas to the exclusion of large swaths of our nation. By our estimation, 1 in 8 American Jews lives outside one of these major metros. At the same time, we must also see that class disparities exist within every locale. And so, as we plan programs and craft policies as an American Jewish community, I would challenge all of us to ask ourselves and our institutions questions out loud that we usually don’t ask.

1) Who is included or excluded by the price of this event or membership?
2) What services should every member of a Jewish community be able to access, regardless of price? Who will provide it? Who will pay those who are providing those services and will they be paid a fair wage?
3) How do we work to address the pain and shame caused by unacknowledged class differences within our community?

Not all of these questions have simple answers, but we have to start addressing them. From where I stand, there are three steps we should be taking as an American Jewish community to make our community more economically equitable now:

a) First, even though livestreaming has been a blessing and increased accessibility and access in ways that cannot be overstated or taken for granted, we still need to reiterate—in all of our communities—that it doesn’t replace the importance of physical presence. For most of us, to be human is to be embodied, and we cannot let physical presence and contact become a luxury good.
b) Second, every state in America should have at bare minimum one full-time, at-large, pluralistically oriented rabbi with an endowed salary that serves the entire Jewish community of that state, regardless of ability to donate or pay.
c) We need to find ways to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, so that every Jew’s soul is fed. We cannot afford to lose anyone. For many small-town rabbis like myself who travel back and forth regularly between large cities and our small-town synagogues, the disparity in services, luxuries, and opportunities we witness between urban communities and our home shuls is striking and often painful.

Shuls like ours are struggling to pay their heating bills so that our pipes don’t freeze. Our congregants often cannot make their rent or pay college application fees, and our shul boards struggle mightily to raise the funds for paltry part-time rabbinic salaries. These heroic small-town lay leaders work the equivalent of unpaid, full-time jobs so that every member of their congregation can have a human hand to hold when life gets real—both during times of the transcendent joy like birth, marriage, and graduation and through the pains of divorce, children in dire mental health crises, chronic illness often exacerbated by poverty, and death.

The eternal faith of the people Israel is a covenant that should not be contingent on one’s class—it is up to all of us to make sure that every member of our people is spiritually sated, held by community, known and called by name. We need a new American Jewish budget that fulfills the basic birthright of every Jew in this nation—to be served and held as a worthy member of our people.

I need to thank Central Synagogue for providing me with the pulpit tonight and for financially supporting the organization I lead, the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College, that serves small communities like Beth Israel nationally. When I first approached the Central Clergy team to support our work with small communities nationally, they answered the call immediately—partnering with us not only financially, but as thought partners in building community and capacity through Central’s Neighborhood and my organization’s programs. Two other Manhattan synagogues—Rodeph Sholom and Park Avenue—came in alongside them, eager to help us spread the story of small-town Jewish life and advance our mission. But there is so much more to be done on a strategic, national scale to ensure that we are touching and serving every member of the American Jewish community with dignity. We will need to continue this work together, large and small Jewish congregations working together to serve the entirety of our people with dignity.

And now from those lofty theoretical heights, I want to bring you back down home to Waterville. You are all invited to join us for one of our Shabbat potlucks, with lechem mishneh—a double portion—of Barbara’s homemade challah dotted with anise seed and Liz’s famous and beloved lasagna. Nothing is fancy, but everyone who enters leaves full. Those two simple facts are related. In this Shabbat to come, let’s dream of lechem mishneh, a double portion for all, and on Sunday, let’s start ensuring that everyone, at the very least, has the flour for a single loaf. As our rabbis teach, eyn kemach, eyn Torah—without flour, without physical sustenance, our Torah cannot live. You know, we Jews, we’ve always shared a story, The Story, Torah. But now all of us here today share another story, a story about a small place that made me love being a rabbi—the place where I learned and taught about double portions, where with all of our help, Torah will continue to live.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.