Dean of Students Debra DeMeis emailed the Hillel Google group two weeks ago, explaining the circumstances for suddenly firing Jewish Chaplain David Bernat and Hillel Director Patti Sheinman. However, no official announcement was made to the wider community until five days after Hillel was informed. In fact, I learned of the firings through the Wellesley Compliments Facebook page. The College may have decided to restructure Hillel with good intentions, but how the College chose to remove the chaplain and the director was wrong. The administration ignored the student body’s voice and needs and failed to recognize how important Bernat and Sheinman are to the Jewish community as a support system, and to the multifaith community as mentors and leaders.
DeMeis began looking for a rabbi for few reasons. First, the rabbi will be an anchor for Jewish spiritual life and provide the greatest authority on Judaic knowledge. I do not contest this point as I am not Jewish, and I do see a rabbi as a positive change for the Jewish community. Dean DeMeis also wrote, “You will have one person whom you can turn to when you are seeking guidance.” As a student worker in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL), I have seen how much work Bernat and Sheinman do and the importantce of their roles. Combining their niches and responsibilities into one job description seems infeasible. The skill sets required as a rabbi and religious leader differ from those needed to help students plan events. The most elaborated point in the letter is perhaps the most troubling: “ORSL has a critical and very visible role in this community.” Here the decision seems more to be pandering to public relations than to be catering to the students. As a person involved in multifaith, Bernat and Sheinman have effectively dealt with tension and conflict and times of crises. Moreover, they brought the community together. The explanations are unsatisfactory. One unanswered question remains: If the College decided to move away from the rabbi model in the 2000s, why are we returning to that model so abruptly today?
Nevertheless, DeMeis claimed that “our Human Resource Department has found that the best course is to have the person leave immediately and allow an interim time.” While this may be more administratively feasible, it inherently ignores students. I didn’t get the impression that students were involved in this decision or informed until the announcement was ready to be made; rather only senior faculty members were involved in the process of restructuring. What’s more, the College only notified Hillel students at first and waited five days to notify everyone else, allowing news to travel by word of mouth and ignoring the importance of Bernat and Sheinman to the wider community.
Right now, the Jewish students on campus need a center; however, their two pillars have been removed in the midst of semester and replaced with an interim director who is only available 4-8 hours in the evening. Jewish students, who comprise 10% of the student population, are scrambling to figure out even the small things, like acquiring Kosher food for Shabbat dinners, which Sheinman never failed to do. Moreover, restructuring the positions has ignited backlash outside of the College. Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, reported alums withholding donations and students feeling “heightened vulnerability” because of the abrupt firings and lack of transparency.
Wellesley may be a workplace or business for the administration, but it is a home for students who do not easily accept the departures of people who help create this home. My first week on campus was also the week in which I started to work at ORSL. The chaplains and directors, Bernat and Sheinman included, were the first people I came to trust. Even if we must admit the corporate nature of Wellesley, the administration should at least cater to its customers – the students. Wellesley cannot treat changes in staff as simple changes in syllabi, especially when these changes are so intertwined with the heart.
I will miss exiting Billings to see Sheinman unload her car on Friday afternoons with food for Shabbat. I will miss picking up the phone to hear her uplifting voice and her sweet hellos. I will miss the smiles she brings to my face whenever we converse about the worries and wonders of life.
And I will miss Bernat because he has been a mentor to me, despite our faiths; I am Muslim and he is Jewish. I will miss his enthusiastic and caring questions about how I’ve been, and our conversations about multifaith and dialogue. I will miss his critiques of Op-Eds I write. I will miss the Flower Sundays in which he leads the College in a wordless prayer with his enthusiasm and love for our community. More than anything, I will miss my mentor. I will miss an outstanding leader whom I came to trust within my first few weeks at Wellesley.
I will miss them both. Knowing that they are there, practicing their faith as I practice mine. Knowing that if I was in need, that they would be there. That they would help. That they would shed an irreplaceable light on what seems to be only dark in all respects. I can only imagine how my fellow Jewish students feel.
I am most confident that a rabbi will be beneficial, but it’s hard to imagine a multifaith community better than one with Bernat and Sheinman. The administration should consult students more often, especially when it comes to faith. The College should have not removed the chaplain and Hillel director mid-semester when Jewish students needed them the most, and should explain why this decision was made when it was. What’s more, the College needs to recognize the importance of Bernat and Sheinman to the Multifaith community. iIf we wish to foster an open and informed community envisioned by President Bottomly, then we must acknowledge the importance of transparency and student involvement.
I hope that my fellow Jewish classmates find a support system during this time when they feel that they are on their own. I wish that there was more time to say goodbye.
And, I hope that when future decisions like these are made, the College bears in mind the student voice and sentimentalities.