Building the Conservative Community at Rutgers
By Benjamin Goldberg
In Pirke Avot 5:20, Yehudah ben Teima sketches out the idealized lifecycle of a Jew, teaching that twenty is the age for “pursuit,” traditionally understood to be the pursuit of a livelihood. In our society today, young people around this age are actively engaged in education that will prepare them to support themselves and become productive members of society. But college students are also involved in another kind of pursuit, that of identity, meaning and community as they fashion lives increasingly independent of their parents.
It has been my pleasure to serve this year as the rabbinic intern at Rutgers Hillel, where I get to help students in this pursuit of what Judaism will mean to them as adults. I’m here as part of my education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where in the fourth year we complete an intensive internship. I was very active as a student in Hillel and throughout rabbinical school have considered a career in Hillel work. So it was my good fortune to have the opportunity to work with the extraordinary students and staff of Rutgers Hillel. I am on campus during most of the day on Tuesdays and also for Shabbat once a month.
My task this year has been to strengthen the Conservative community at Rutgers. One way I have done this has been meeting students individually, usually over coffee. I hear about their Jewish stories and share some of my own, and we discuss what the students are looking for out of Jewish life on campus, and Hillel and its Conservative community specifically. These meetings forge the relationships that are the basis for the rest of my work. I also study Jewish texts weekly with two different students; with one I study Talmud, and the other, midrashim on the weekly Torah portion.
I’ve also taught two three-part series of classes. Students come to these nighttime sessions as their busy schedules allow, and I’ve tried to address topics that are relevant to their lives as Jewish students. The first series in September addressed the three major themes of the High Holidays: teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah, and connected each of these themes to a specific piece of the high holiday liturgy.
After a break for the holidays, the second series in November was called, “If Moses went to Rutgers.” These sessions used a story from the life of Moses to discuss common issues college students face: defining one’s identity (Moses’ birth and life before escaping Egypt), determining one’s purpose or mission in life (the burning bush story), and learning how to manage one’s time and attention (Jethro’s suggestion to Moses to set up a judiciary). I’ve also taught about the weekly parasha (Torah portion) over lunch when I’m on campus for Shabbat. These sessions were well received and helped connect Torah topics to students’ real lives.
Finally, I’ve guided and advised the dedicated student leaders of KOACH, the Conservative student group. I’ve helped them think through the issues that come up when running a minyan and Jewish community, and helped out in practical ways by leading some services and reading Torah. KOACH offers Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday night, and Shabbat morning services twice a month. It’s been an honor to help these students run their own Jewish community.
Overall, my semester at Rutgers Hillel has been a great rabbinic learning experience for me. I’ve learned more about what it means to be a rabbi and Jewish educator on a college campus, and the challenges and opportunities of working in that setting. My work here has confirmed my interest in working on college campuses. I have found an enthusiastic mentor in Rabbi Esther Reed, and I look forward to my second semester on campus helping students pursue their adult Jewish identities.
If traditional egalitarian Judaism is the value you stand for, please support the Conservative community at Rutgers Hillel so it can continue to thrive on campus.