Growing up Reform in Wooster, Ohio, Nicki Stratford was one of the only Jewish kids in the elementary, middle and high schools she attended.
“I grew up very isolated Jewishly,” she said.
But the effervescent 24-year-old with the 100-watt smile has worked hard to create a meaningful and engaged Jewish life. She is now immersed in Jewish communities in Baltimore, where she works, and Frederick, where she lives with her husband, Rabbi Simon Stratford, 27, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami of Frederick.
Stratford commutes from northwest Frederick to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where she is the synagogue’s coordinator of engagement and programming. And when she and her husband aren’t busy at Kol Ami, they come to BHC, where she said her husband enjoys just being “a Jew in the pew.”
Stratford has been on the job for about a year. Married over the Memorial Day weekend in Ohio, the couple recently celebrated their one-month wedding anniversary.
What was it like growing up in Wooster?
There’s hardly any Jews there, so I always felt like I had to work to be Jewish. We went to Temple Israel in Akron, which was 45 minutes away. I had to make it a choice — to be Jewish in my life. And from third grade on, my mom sent all three of us to summer camp in Wisconsin, which was my time to be fully Jewish every year. And that’s where Simon and I met. I was 13.
What route brought you to your work here?
I went to Miami University, the one in Oxford, Ohio, not Miami, Florida, which was unfortunate for my tan. And played around with what I wanted to do. My first semester, my sister’s friends said, ‘Come to Hillel with us once,’ and I thought, ‘OK, I need dinner, might as well go.’ And I just really loved it. Free food is the key to getting Jews involved.
What did you study?
Comparative religion was eventually it. Because Judaism was such a part of my identity, I really wanted to grapple with why other’s religions are a part of their identity. I also took some Islamic studies courses before I decided on my major, and that professor really sealed the deal. I knew a lot of rabbis and people in rabbinical school, but decided that wasn’t exactly the route I wanted. I kind of fell into the Jewish professional world and I realized that I really liked being a Jew professionally.
What do you do at BHC?
I do a little bit of everything: the main programming, Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars, our big holiday programming, our Chanukah dinners, our Sukkot dinner and celebration, our Shavuot celebration. I also am the staff member for our 20s and 30s group, Chai Life. So, that takes up a large portion of my time. Any day my job could be different, depending on what’s in my mailbox when I come in in the morning, which keeps it exciting.
What’s the best part of being a rabbi’s wife?
The community. Everyone wants to be of help and everyone wants to make sure that we are happy. Especially when we were settling in — that we knew Frederick and that we were understanding things. We don’t have family here, so everyone’s tried to help with that. Along with the congregants here, they’ve made sure that we were settled. Even though I am staff here at BHC, I feel more like a congregant and a member of the community.
What are your favorite things about Frederick?
I like the size. I also really like the access to hiking and outdoorsyness that we have there. We’re big outdoors people, so the fact that Gambrill State Park is 10 minutes from our house, we try to hike as much as possible and be outside.
What about Baltimore?
The Abbey Burger Bistro I really enjoy. We spent one weekend at the Marriott Inner Harbor. That was nice. And Simon is a huge Cubs fans, so whenever the Cubs are playing the Orioles we try to make it here.