The firing and sudden departure of Jewish chaplain David Bernat and Hillel director Patti Sheinman came as a shock to many members of Wellesley’s Jewish community. On Nov. 21, Dean of Students Debra DeMeis and Professor of Chemistry Emerita Nancy Kolodny ’64 announced the restructuring of the Jewish chaplaincy on campus and outlined the need for a rabbi on campus based on Jewish programs at surrounding colleges and universities. Bernat and Sheinman were informed that they were fired on Nov. 12. Sheinman had just returned from leave following the death of her mother; Bernat was on vacation and was informed over the phone. Both were given two months’ severance pay and were asked to leave their offices by Nov. 21.
Members of the administration consulted with faculty prior to making the change in Jewish support staff on campus. The decision was made for students, but no students were consulted until after the decision was made.
“Four senior faculty members were involved in the decision and met with some members of the Hillel executive board and other students on the evening the staffing changes were announced,” Kolodny said.
Wellesley Hillel members were not included in conversations regarding the deicion to fire Bernat and Sheinman.
“No students were involved in the restructuring decision. The decision was made by administration and a few faculty members,” Rebecca Fishbein ’15, president of Wellesley Hillel, said.
DeMeis and Joanne Murray, director of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, informed the Hillel executive board of the changes on Nov. 12. Members of Hillel executive board then announced the changes to the Jewish community the following Monday.
“Consideration about the change began last spring, as part of a broader consideration of Wellesley’s Multifaith model. The conclusion was that the strongest, best possible Jewish chaplaincy for Wellesley should be anchored by a dedicated, full-time, on-staff rabbi,” DeMeis said.
According to Bernat, the changes were made without evaluating his or Sheinman’s work.
“No review of Jewish life, or Patti’s and my work, had been conducted by the administration with students, with the Student Life division as a whole, within the Office of Religious Life or with recent or older alums,” Bernat said. “No stakeholders had been consulted — not the chaplaincy team, or the Dean of Religious Life, not the Hillel student board, not the Hillel Alum Governing Board, not the regional Hillel body with which Wellesley Hillel was affiliated.”
The College did not provide Bernat with any reason for his dismissal aside from restructuring. Fishbein said that the Hillel executive board is also still unclear regarding the reasons behind the sudden staffing changes.
“The College indicated that they were moving to a new staffing model. The intent was to have a rabbi as opposed to our ‘lay’ leadership. Patti has degrees in social work and counseling. I have a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies,” Bernat said.
In justifying their decision to hire a rabbi to replace Bernat and Sheinman’s roles, DeMeis and Kolodny’s statement referenced other collegiate Jewish programs which have rabbis. Wellesley is one of two colleges in the Boston area, the other being Boston College, which does not have a rabbi on Hillel staff, while Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University and MIT all do.
“We aren’t against restructuring. We understand it happens and is a part of change. I have heard conversations about having a rabbi with a variety of Hillel members since I was a first year; I am now a junior. However, our community should have been consulted,” Hillel member Delanie Goerig ’16 said.
The greater concern for the Hillel community, however, is the relative lack of support the Jewish community will receive until the College can hire a rabbi. Jordan Namerow ’05, a former Hillel president, will serve as interim part-time Hillel director for four to eight hours per week.
“Though both [Bernat and Sheinman] were technically part-time employees, they both definitely dedicated themselves to Wellesley Hillel full time,” Fishbein said.
Bernat believes that the abrupt nature of their dismissal is disruptive and inconsistent with the professional standards of religious life.
“Unless there is some accusation of malfeasance, we typically remain in place during transitions. Our immediate and abrupt termination showed a particularly high degree of ‘tone-deafness’ because it came at a time when Jewish student sensitivities are particularly raw, and when they are feeling so vulnerable,” Bernat said. “How disorienting it must be to have a relationship with a teacher, mentor, therapist or spiritual guide, severed without warning and without the potential for a healthy transition.”
Allowing Bernat and Sheinman to stay until an appropriate replacement was found, Bernat argued, would allow him and Sheiman to “leave with dignity” and find a new position for the next academic year.
Students in the Jewish community are also concerned about the relative lack of support given the current political climate at Wellesley, particularly regarding the recent dialogue about the “What Does Zionism Mean To You” poster in the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center. Bernat’s six years and Sheinman’s more than 10 years at Wellesley gave them insight into how Wellesley students process controversial events, which is something that would be more difficult for a new staff member to do, Hillel member Tali Marcus ’15 argued.
“They’ve seen patterns of how things played out,” Marcus said. “Losing that relationship and support has been really difficult.”
In addition to providing support to the Jewish community, Bernat and Sheinman also played an active role in the multifaith community on campus.
“Patti and David maintained a strong relationship with Hillel and with the multifaith and multicultural communities as a whole. David worked with people looking to convert, held major holiday services and worked in the larger multifaith community, whereas I saw Patti more with community and cultural activities. Patti also embodied a matriarchal air, which helped solidify our community that many mentioned after her firing,” Goerig said.
Bernat and Sheinman had close ties to many students of Jewish faith on campus. About 10 percent of Wellesley students identify as Jewish.
“Hillel members are incredibly close with Patti and David. They have worked with Hillel at Wellesley for many years, and we are really sad to see them leave,” Fishbein said.
Additionally, Hillel members noted that losing support staff late in the semester adds tension to an already stressful time of year.
“In the moment, we didn’t know how to prepare emotionally or structurally,” Goerig said. “Our first structural thought was groceries for Shabbos. Do students grocery shop, taking on the role that Patti used to do? Will Jordan [Namerow] take on that role? If not, how much catering can we afford? Then thinking toward the future, what are we going to do for our Passover, Purim, etc.?”
Bernat was also a source of support to the Muslim community on campus, especially during the 2012 academic year, when there was no Muslim chaplain on campus. Bernat ensured halal meat was properly prepared in dining halls, amid concerns that halal-labeled meat was not in fact halal.
The search for a new rabbi, according to Fishbein, should be completed by the fall of 2015, but the College plans to have an interim rabbi in addition to Namerow’s part-time position.
“Administration is also offering additional support whenever we ask,” Fishbein said.
The administration will be hiring an interim rabbi to start at the beginning of spring semester.
“During this transition, we are committed to providing strong support for Jewish students. We will be hiring an interim rabbi who will start at the beginning of spring semester and remain until a permanent appointment is made,” DeMeis said.
However, Bernat is concerned that students will not have adequate support from administration members.
“I feel most for our students, especially the Jewish community, and am worried about what they face in the coming year, and how they will be supported by the administration,” Bernat said.
Although students were not involved in the restructuring decision, the College plans to include students in future decisions impacting the Jewish community on campus.
“While we did not have a say in the restructuring, the Hillel executive board will be on the search committee for the new rabbi, and we will have a say in the future of Hillel at Wellesley,” Fishbein said.
The search committee for the rabbi position will include three members of the Wellesley Hillel Alumnae Board and three students from the Hillel executive board, with the goal of having a rabbi hired for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Photo by Sravanti Tekumalla ’16, Online Editor
Editor’s note: This article previously stated that Boston College both does and does not have a rabbi on their Jewish staff; the latter is correct. The article has been updated to reflect this error.
The summary firing of two stellar Hillel leaders is inexplicable–the reasons given, about “re-structuring,” are reminiscent of the double speak cravenly applied by large corporations and multi-nationals. In cases where such sweeping change is deemed necessary the correct and ethical path is to implement a plan that includes a transition period. From my point of view as an emerita professor allied with Hillel, my sense is that not to have done so is to abandon students at a most sensitive point of the academic year. It is puzzling that the four faculty members said to have participated in the decision seemed to have chosen anonymity instead of candid communication. This misstep should be rectified.
It is pretty unheard of for a college or university to fire important student support/programming staff in the middle of a semester, unless there are financial exigencies or improper staff behavior. And Wellesley does not claim either. This action, apparently done without programmatic or personnel review, or consultation with involved constituencies, flies in the face of any reasonable idea of administrative process or procedure. The normal and usual process would be to announce a re-organization for the next academic year, and go into planning and search mode, while maintaining the current staff and structure, which would allow student support and programming to function at current levels. Totally bad management on the part of Wellesley, and an outrageous treatment of staff.