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Reconstructionist Ideals at Work on Campus

March 20, 2017

Marley Weiner’s passion for Judaism, commitment to pluralism, enthusiasm for working with college students, and the training she’s received at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College help her connect with and inspire a diverse student population at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“What I care about is: are you interested in exploring Judaism? If so, then everybody is welcome,” said Weiner, one of eight RRC students given the opportunity to intern at campus Hillels. Generous donors to RRC help make these internships possible. (Two of the internships are currently funded by the host Hillels and not through RRC.)

Weiner, who will graduate in June, is completing her second year as the rabbinic intern for Hillel at Temple University, a diverse, urban campus in Philadelphia. One of her most profound encounters came early in her tenure. Weiner met a Temple student from a progressive Jewish background. The student had traveled to Israel with an Orthodox group and wanted to incorporate new aspects into her Jewish identity – without necessarily becoming Orthodox. The student was also interested in exploring ethics and morality from a Jewish perspective.

Weiner introduced her to the practice of Mussar, a Jewish approach to ethics and personal behavior that became a full-fledged social and political movement in 19th century Lithuania. Today, the study and practice of Mussar have become prevalent in progressive Jewish communities. Mussar students engage in a series contemplative practices, exercises and study in order to live a more ethical life.

Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., professor of Jewish philosophy and theology, describes Mussar as “a Jewish practice of cultivating inner virtues (being loving, respectful, patient or humble) by undertaking incremental daily behaviors that gradually shift one's heart. The practice keeps one accountable by involving reporting monthly to a group and more frequently to a partner.”

For more than a year, Weiner and the student have studied Mussar texts and practices. The student, moved spiritually and intellectually by her experience with Weiner and Mussar, has found a path to Jewish expression that speaks to her. She is now working with Weiner to organize a larger Mussar practice group.

“It is not my job to impose my beliefs on the students,” Weiner said. “It is my job to have ideas or solutions for things they want to explore.”

Weiner’s practical rabbinic training in facilitating nuanced and productive discussions allows her to respond to students’ needs to question, vent, and figure out what to do next.

In the wake of recent events from earlier this year, Jewish students on Temple's campus felt threatened like never before, even shattered. Like everyone else, they saw reports of hundreds of gravestones toppled in a Jewish cemetery in their city and Jewish institutions across North America facing bomb threats.

Weiner gathered the troubled students to discuss their reactions to these events. “It got pretty emotional,” recalled Weiner. “Students talked about how scared they are, about not knowing what to do. This is the first time that most of them have felt something this visceral in terms of anti-Semitism.”

Some of the students came away with an idea of what to do next: a few talked about the need to strengthen relations with other targeted minority groups on campus. Others, Weiner said, felt some satisfaction at articulating their fears and hearing the concerns of others.

“They don’t have to have all the answers right now, but they have to think about how to live in this reality,” said Weiner.

Responding to the needs of students, helping them sort through and explore their deepest and most uncomfortable questions, is part and parcel of Weiner’s job description. In fact, she accomplishes more in a 15-hour work week than many professionals do in 40.

Weiner helps students organize programs, teaches classes about Jewish ethics, race and Judaism, and the weekly Torah portion, spends time with students outside of the Hillel’s Edward Rosen Center for Jewish Life, and, oftentimes, just serves as a sympathetic ear. She often brings pop culture and current events into her teachings, to make it more relatable. She even asked a tattooed RRC classmate to lead an informal session about Jewish perspectives on tattoos, offering a very different take from what many students had heard before.

The Philadelphia-area native credits her love of Hillel with her positive experience at Barnard College in New York City, where she was involved in numerous Jewish student groups and developed a commitment to Jewish pluralism and peoplehood. 

“I love working in a Hillel environment because I get to do a little bit everything,” said Weiner. “I am glad I am doing my Hillel work in my last years at the college. I have the full force of all my rabbinic training to bring to this really important work with emergent adults.”

RRC students gain valuable experience working with a diverse and dynamic young adult population. And the campus communities where they practice benefit from the wisdom and energy of RRC students, who are not only grounded in Jewish tradition but also trained to approach the rabbinate in an entrepreneurial fashion – meeting students where they are.

And, as is the case with Temple, students get the chance to interact with a rabbi with a different religious voice since Temple Hillel’s only other rabbinic presence, Executive Director Daniel Levitt, is an Orthodox rabbi.

“From a pluralistic view, it is really important to be exposed to different perspectives,” said Levitt. “One of the most valuable lessons to students is to see that, while Marley and I are not going to agree on every issue, we have a great amount of respect for each other.”

“She loves Jewish learning. It is really obvious how much emotional energy she has invested in this work,” added Levitt. “It is inspiring to see the love for Torah that she has.”

If you are interested in supporting RRC's internship program, please contact Barbara Lissy, assistant vice president of development, at 215.566.0800, ext. 155 or blissy@rrc.edu.