NEWBURYPORT – Alex Matthews came to the North Shore because of his love of farming, and now he’s growing into the role of a future rabbi.
The congregational leader of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport plans to finish rabbinical school in 2023, become ordained, and continue to lead the synagogue.
“I think that is the best-case scenario,” said Matthews, 34, “and it’s what I’m hoping for and what the community is hoping for that I can grow with the institution and the institution can grow with me.”
Matthews, a native of the Riverdale section of the Bronx, is just finishing up year three of a five-year ordination program at Hebrew College in Newton.
“We are growing our own, that’s the whole idea,” said Susan Latham, the president of the egalitarian, nondenominational congregation of more than 100 people.
Jews have been living in Newburyport since 1886. The first shul was located in a house on Liberty and Independence Street. In 1933, the congregation moved into the former Washington Street Methodist Church, built in 1865, where it remains today.
Growing up, Matthews attended SAR Academy, a private, Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale, for elementary and middle school. He went to high school at the Ramaz School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
His path to rabbinical school led him first to Peru, then along the Appalachian Trail, then to Martha’s Vineyard, and finally, to Newburyport.
In college, Matthews studied natural resource management at Cornell University, graduating in 2009. In the summers during college, he worked on a vegetable farm on Martha’s Vineyard. Farming had become his passion, but by the time he figured that out, it was too late to change his major.
After college, he joined the Peace Corps from 2009 to 2011. He traveled to Peru, where he was a community-based environmental management volunteer in a village of about 300 people north of Lima.
Afterward, he hiked the Appalachian Trail with two of his best friends from the Peace Corps. At the end of the journey almost five months later, he decided he wanted to be a farmer.
He went back to Martha’s Vineyard in 2012, but the island proved to be too secluded for him, so a friend suggested he work at Appleton Farms in Ipswich. He did that for a year, and in the process, fell in love with the region. He worked at Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, New Hampshire, for more than four years, and lived in Ipswich, Amesbury, and Boxford before settling in Newburyport in 2015.
He soon began attending Congregation Ahavas Achim for the High Holidays.
At first, he wasn’t particularly involved in the synagogue until he started dating a woman who is now his fiancée. She was not Jewish at the time, but she has since converted, Matthews said.
In the early stages of their relationship, they began talking about his Judaism. She told him if he was not practicing, it would be hard for her to see the value of it and understand it.
“I guess we should start going to shul, meeting people in the community, and being active,” Matthews recalled saying to his girlfriend.
He began volunteering at the shul, and as his familiarity grew, he began to help lead services.
His close friend, the congregation’s former rabbi, Benjamin Resnick, helped him become more comfortable in these leadership roles and “be more engaged and not just be a bystander in a corner of the sanctuary,” Matthews said.
Rabbi Resnick encouraged Matthews to go to rabbinical school, “and that was the greatest gift to us,” said Latham, the synagogue president.
“Alex is great, he is amazing,” Latham said. “He’s just such a natural at it and it’s worked out really well.” Matthews helped guide the congregation through the trying times of the pandemic, working with the board and with technology to be able to stream services. “He has totally risen to the occasion,” Latham said.
“The reason why it works so well is he is such a good fit for our community,” Latham said.
Matthews is not entirely giving up on farming. His fiancée, McDonough “Mac” Scanlon, owns High Road Farm in Newbury.
Matthews sees a common thread connecting farming and the Torah. For example in Leviticus, God says not to harvest the corners of your fields, or pick your vineyards bare, so there is something for the poor and strangers to eat.
“At the corner of both of those things is community building,” Matthews said.