Two months after the abrupt dismissal of Jewish chaplain David Bernat and Hillel Director Patti Sheinman, the College has hired Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz to serve as interim rabbi and Hillel director. Over the next few months, Rabbi Ehrenkrantz will support and advise Jewish students while the hiring committee — which consists of students, alumnae, faculty and staff — searches for a permanent rabbi to take over the position next fall.
Ehrenkrantz, known by students as Rabbi Dan, spent the last 25 years as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Pennsylvania, where he has also served as a visiting instructor and professor. From 2007 to 2012, the Daily Beast listed him annually as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in the country. The authors of the 2012 rankings wrote that Ehrenkrantz “carries the torch for a self-critical, nuanced Judaism.”
The last time the College had an ordained rabbi on staff was in the early 2000s. According to a longtime staff member in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the rabbi was let go for reasons related to her job performance. Since then, Jewish life on campus has been supported by a part-time Jewish chaplain and a part-time Hillel Director. The College felt that hiring a full-time rabbi to fill both roles would strengthen Jewish life on campus. In a community-wide announcement in November, Dean of Students Debra DeMeis and Professor of Chemistry Emerita Nancy H. Kolodny ’64 outlined the reasons behind the decision. DeMeis and Kolodny described a rabbi as “the center of any Jewish community” who can provide “the highest level of literacy in Jewish learning and ritual.”
“There are many, many facets to Judaism,” Kolodny, who is also co-chairing the search committee, explained. “There are religious facets, social facets, social justice facets, historical facets, political facets … Someone who is trained as a rabbi will have the tools to deal with every facet.”
Colleges in the Boston area that have a rabbi on Hillel staff include Brandeis University, Harvard University and MIT.
Though the dismissal of Bernat and Sheinman came as a surprise to many, talk of hiring a full-time rabbi began as early as last spring. It is still unclear why Bernat and Sheinman were not included in those talks and were not notified until November that they had lost their jobs.
After the dismissal of Bernat and Sheinman, the College brought in a part-time Hillel director to take over their duties in the interim. Hillel office manager Jennifer Dennis, who has worked at Wellesley for the last three and a half years, also served as a familiar face to help support Jewish students who were taken by suprise by the change in personnel. Although there has been much more communication between administrators and students since the departure of Bernat and Sheinman, Hillel president Rebecca Fishbein ’15 says the transition has been bumpy at times.
“I miss them a lot. I really do, which has been hard,” Fishbein said. “But you have to look to the future, and the future is very bright.”
Fishbein says that she looks forward to having an ordained rabbi on campus. Other students who met Rabbi Ehrenkrantz for the first time at Shabbat dinner last Friday left with positive first impressions.
Overall, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life has undergone considerable change over the course of this academic year, beginning with the departure of former dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Victor Kazanjian, who oversaw the office for 20 years. Since then, there have been four new hires in the department, all of whom are serving in the interim until permanent replacements are found.
Dean DeMeis hopes the changes will strengthen religious and spiritual life on campus. Although transitions can be difficult, she said that these times are also an opportunity to reflect on the future of religious and spiritual life on campus.
“As we watch the kind of clash of faiths across the world and the misunderstanding of faith traditions around the world, I think that the role that the office could play in helping people to reach out, to learn about each other’s traditions…is an important mission for the office,” DeMeis said.
Despite the good intentions, this particular change in Jewish life occurred at a time of heightened uneasiness over a poster campaign organized by Wellesley Students for Justice in Palestine (WSJP). The large poster located in the student center, which posed the question “What does Zionism mean to you?” garnered responses from passersby ranging from academic definitions of Zionism to “murder,” “apartheid,” and “genocide.” Fishbein says it was a very difficult time for many Jewish students on campus.
Wellesley Students for Justice in Palestine, which includes Jewish members, said the poster was part of an educational campaign and was not meant to provoke anti-Jewish sentiment.
“As Jews, we are often told, and we often tell ourselves, that criticism of the State of Israel is not the same thing as criticism of the Jewish people. Still, that message can be hard, even impossible, to internalize,” Lena Shapiro ’17, a member of WSJP, wrote in an op-ed published in the Wellesley News in November. “Yet these conversations are not only inevitable, they are vitally important.”
The poster included a disclaimer which warned that “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism will not be tolerated.” However, the most inflammatory responses remained on display for a few weeks. The poster was removed anonymously over Thanksgiving break and has not yet been found.
The dismissal of Bernat and Sheinman in the midst of the increased tensions over the poster campaign left many Jewish students feeling as though their support structure had been weakened at a time when they needed it most.
Aware that his appointment comes just two months after the peak of controversy, Rabbi Ehrenkrantz says his first job is to learn from students.
“I think one of my first jobs is to listen,” he said. “I am interested that Jewish life at Wellesley should serve the Jewish community at Wellesley, and in order for that to happen, I need to get to know the people who are here.”
Rabbi Ehrenkrantz himself has engaged in some of these issues in the past. In 2011, he published commentary in the Huffington Post entitled “Jewish Unity and the State of Israel,” which caught the attention of the Daily Beast in their ranking of influential rabbis. In the article, he wrote that Judaism is a worldwide community, and support for Israel has become one of the few areas of common ground that unite the wide diaspora of modern Jews. However, he hopes that the Jewish community can search for sources of unity beyond the nation of Israel.
“Israel is a state just like America, and like every nation, it’s complicated, it’s not perfect, it’s flawed,” he said. “If we rely on a sole symbol and have to see Israel as a symbol because of its needs for providing Jewish unity, it makes it more difficult to appreciate the reality that is the state of Israel.”
Ehrenkrantz, who remembers attending Zionist summer camp in his youth and whose grandfather fled Eastern Europe in search of religious freedom, says that Zionism is meaningful to him because he believes the term refers to the liberation of the Jewish people. However, he added, “I don’t have a monopoly on the definition of Zionism.”
Support for Jewish students and the overall nature of religious life on campus has evolved dramatically over the years. Until the 1950s, the College imposed a quota on the number of Jewish students that could be admitted to Wellesley. Many other colleges had similar quotas at the time. According to an article written by Emeritus Professor Jerold S. Auerbach and published online in the American Thinker, Wellesley professors routinely denied student requests to postpone exams and assignments scheduled on Yom Kippur and openly expressed their unhappiness when Jewish students missed class for holy day observance of religious holidays.
“It used to be that Wellesley had a Protestant chaplain and that was it,” Professor Kolodny said. “The model that Victor Kazanjian, who was the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, created is this cooperative, truly communal model.”
Today, the job posting for a permanent rabbi on Wellesley campus requires candidates to be able not only to translate Jewish tradition, culture and theology into a contemporary context, but also to help plan and lead multi-faith College traditions, activities and services. The new hire must be able to engage with a diverse population of Jewish students and delve into issues of Israeli and Palestinian identity. The job description states that a permanent rabbi must “thoughtfully encourage students to explore their own Jewish identities and their relationships with Israel [and] Palestine.”
The job ad was posted in November. On Thursday, January 29, the search committee convened to evaluate the candidates, in a meeting which both student and faculty members described as highly productive. Candidates will begin visiting the campus in the coming weeks. The committee is hopeful that the hiring process will be complete in a matter of months and that the new rabbi will be able to take over in the fall, in time for the start of the next academic year.
Photo by Bianca Pichamuthu ’16, Photography Editor