Nobody will ever mistake Athens, Ohio, for one of the great Jewish cities of the world. There’s no beit midrash, or JCC, or federation, or mikveh, or day school — not even a kosher section at the supermarket. We have one rabbi (me), a small Hillel (me, plus college students), and a Jewish fraternity house (that’s me when I’m invited). Mix in a handful of local families, and we have an eclectic Jewish community in the foothills of Appalachia. We don’t face many of the challenges that other small communities face. We’re not shrinking — if one Jewish faculty member leaves, another arrives eventually — and students graduate but new ones cycle in. The mortgage on our big brick Hillel building, coveted real estate near campus, was paid off long ago, and though we have only a small endowment, our operating costs are minimal. This community is highly sustainable, and we don’t ask much of people. Just show up when you’re inclined or, in some cases, show up when you’re called. And, in turn, we promise always to be welcoming.
I’ve served as the rabbi of this small campus community for nearly 12 years — a long tenure for a person in this town. Even though the Ohio University Jewish community has been in existence since 1938, it has never held onto a Jewish clergy member for more than a few years. Originally, I thought I was just dropping in for a few years to develop my rabbinic skills, build my résumé, and then move to one of the great Jewish cities in America like all the rabbis before me. Athens is, without debate, an unsettling place for a committed Jewish practitioner to commit to.
My colleagues often ask me: Why do you stay in Athens? Doesn’t work draw you elsewhere? Are there not other places to live where you could build a life with more Jews? I used to apologize for my choice and take my scolding for opting out of the cornucopia of Jewish jobs available in more exciting places. I’d let my colleagues’ assumptions about the Jews in southeastern Ohio — not worthy of my rabbinic education, never capable of changing the landscape of American Judaism — sit heavy between us. I look back at that younger version of myself and admittedly feel a surge of shame for not asserting that southeastern Ohio needed me, and perhaps not just temporarily. Are we not taught in rabbinical school that we assume leadership for all Jews, no matter their location or their community’s amount of federation funding?
Nowadays, I don’t apologize. I’m proud of the life and career I’ve built here. My work with Hillel, both locally and nationally, is dynamic and my husband and our children spend every summer in a more Jewish part of the world — Tel Aviv. We have a lovely house and good friends, and we can honestly look around and say: Hey! This place is pretty awesome! And most of the time it is pretty awesome.
Sometimes, it isn’t; sometimes, I wish I had a synagogue to attend for a spirited communal holiday service. Sometimes, my son wonders where all the other Jewish children are. My husband, who is one of the few people in our zip code who can name members of the Knesset, craves the presence of Jewish professors and others who care about Middle East politics and Israel. There are regular and admittedly difficult moments when our family feels unsettled, Jewishly, in the place that we also feel deeply devoted to. My 8 year-old daughter might be the only member of the family completely satisfied with everything her little town offers: Rebecca, the American Girl doll, is enough Jewish company for her.
Being unsettled doesn’t mean being unhappy or unfulfilled or even ungrateful. I want my Jewish students to know that Judaism happens where you make it happen. Community gathers if — but only if — you agree to participate. And just because we’re in a town without the traditional Jewish infrastructure doesn’t mean that Judaism can’t happen here in truly creative and life-changing ways.
My college students are also unsettled. They’ve chosen to transplant themselves from Cleveland or Pittsburgh — urban or suburban areas with all the Jewish trimmings — and make a temporary home in one of the least Jewish spaces in all of America. They huddle and create micro-Jewish communities. They ghettoize their neighborhoods and sign lease agreements and live within a few feet of each other. They mourn the distance between themselves and their hometown kosher eateries that offer fluffy matzah balls and pastrami sandwiches. Their identities have shifted from majority to minority and from normal to exotic. These new identities — minority, exotic — often create an urgency to educate others, to deepen their own knowledge, and, ultimately, to find greater value in their Jewish experiences.
As Hillel staff, we help, of course, but we can’t take all the credit for their emerging leadership. The in-between nature of Athens, the temporality of feeling unsettled, of shifting identities, is a remarkable arbiter of actualization and focus. Many students realize, some for the first time, that they can steer the conversation and create Jewish experiences unlike anything they’ve previously encountered. Without a weighty Jewish infrastructure or a clear set of expectations and rules, the boundaries disappear. For many students, this is a blessing. For others, the absence of Jewish adults telling them how to be Jewish is terribly unsettling. So we hold their hands and guide them along a more familiar path. Whether they are settled or unsettled, fearful or excited, we do our best to guide rather than to lead.
Athens is a college town with an inordinate number of transient people. The students are only visiting for four years, and professors are known to move along once a better offer arrives from a more prestigious university. My husband and I have said farewell to our fair share of friends. But we’re staying put for now. And that could mean we’re here forever, or it might mean we’re leaving next year. Unsettled? Always. Isn’t that what it means to be Jewish?