The Spiritual Advisor Students Need (Hint: It's Not Campus Rabbi Anymore)

College Replaces Cleric With 'Advisor for Identity and Praxis'

courtesy of ellen bernstein

By Ellen Bernstein

Published March 22, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Jewish world is still aflutter with the recent results of the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, which speaks of declining Jewish identification among young people. While much of the institutional world is fretting about how to reach Jews who don’t identify with being Jewish, Hampshire College, a secular institution in Amherst, Mass., whose Jewish population is 27.7% of the student body, is trying to do something about it.

For the past few years, the spiritual life department at Hampshire has been grappling with the question of what it means to serve the spiritual needs of Jewish young people and what it means to be a rabbi in a place where about only 10% of the Jewish population attends Sabbath activities. This year, as a response, Hampshire redefined the role of the rabbi and renamed the position “adviser for identity and praxis.”

To some, this seemed like an indication of a desire to “take the Jewish out of the position.“ But in fact the change was meant to more accurately, more effectively and more fully serve the entire Jewish community — not just those who already have a strong, positive Jewish identity.

I was recently hired to fulfill the position and I, for one, am delighted with Hampshire’s decision. While some people shake their heads and look quizzically when I mention my new title, I respond, “Think adviser for being and doing, or adviser for meaning and purpose.” I am grateful to be able to help individuals in the Hampshire community navigate the challenges of their lives, discern their innermost truth and find greater fulfillment and connection.

While I am charged to work with students who already have a strong Jewish identity and help them strengthen their spiritual and Jewish bonds, this title offers me the chance to also meet students who are ambivalent about Judaism, identify mostly with secular culture and would not think of seeking out a rabbi for advising or for meaning making.

The title also gives me the opportunity to work effectively in the public domain (the entire Hampshire community), not just in a Jewish one. I have always believed that the best way to reach Jews who do not feel at home in Judaism is to do compelling Jewish work in public: to contextualize Judaism within the marketplace of ideas; to break down tired, old images of Judaism and raise up new, vibrant ones. In the past, I have produced inter-spiritual Tu B’Shvat Seders in which my organization, Shomrei Adamah, partnered with the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation department, and an All Species Parade in which we partnered with the Philadelphia Zoo.

Creative Jewish programs in the public domain — a place where you would least expect to see them — can surprise people and pique their curiosity about what it might mean to be Jewish. People need to feel attracted to a vision of what Judaism could be before they will start coming around for Sabbath dinners.

What might this look like at Hampshire? It will depend in large part on the students. But in addition to traditional Jewish programming, teaching and advising, my vision includes developing workshops on Judaism and Buddhism, Judaism and art, Judaism and the land. I imagine service projects in which students are participating in the life of surrounding communities: in river cleanups, urban restoration, and design and arts projects. I imagine Jewish students bringing an understanding of biblical and rabbinic agricultural principles to the student-run farm at Hampshire, perhaps an elegant Sabbath farm-to-table dinner served en plein air on the rolling Hampshire meadow.

The media brings us stories about the rising number of “Nones,” people with no religious affiliation, on a regular basis — it’s not just a Jewish phenomenon. But while the religious establishment tends to see this situation as a sign of doom, here at Hampshire we think it may actually be an opportunity to reconsider what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be a human being at this particular moment in history.

Ellen Bernstein is the adviser for identity and praxis at Hampshire College. Contact her at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.