New Hillel head takes youthful approach to job

Jodi Genshaft

He’s sporting a 5 o’clock shadow and fumbling with a pen cap. The unbuttoned, gray polo shirt, revealing a white T-shirt, complements his youthful appearance: the sparkling eyes, the Bob Marley CD, the tennis shoes. Of course, he wanders everywhere in these faded sneakers. And now he’s trekking to Northwestern’s Hillel Cultural Life for his first gig as a rabbi.

Rabbi Michael Mishkin, who was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, became the new executive director of Hillel on July 2.

The 30-year-old rabbi is a natural teacher, fusing his passion for modern Jewish philosophy with his experiences working with college students at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin. Although he is a conservative Jew, Mishkin teaches spirituality with a pluralistic view.

“I’m not so arrogant to say I’m certain and what I’m doing is right and what other people are doing is wrong,” Mishkin says. “I’m very comfortable in all the Jewish communities. As a Hillel director, I want to respect where everyone is coming from and support them in that.”

Mishkin says he presents Jewish sources to students without preaching his own values. Take interfaith dating, for example. It is not crazy to break up over religion because relationships become “infinitely more complicated” when they lack shared religious values, he explains. And he says interfaith dating without dialogue lacks honesty.

“Unless it’s going to be a weekend fling, you’re basically saying, ‘I don’t think very highly of that person,'” Mishkin says. “Who wants to get into a relationship but say, ‘I’m going to put a ceiling on it right here at a very low point?'”

Mishkin brings the same progressive attitude to Hillel. The rabbi says it is impossible to know how students will connect with their Judaism, so he wants to attract them with social, educational and religious programs. Mishkin says he prayed and ate Shabbat dinner at Hillel occasionally when he was a student, but he was looking for answers in the larger community.

Mishkin says college students explore new ideas and are willing to make changes in their lives if they believe in something. And the same philosophical messages that stimulated his own spirituality in college can resonate with NU students through proper teaching, he says.

Sprawled on a couch, Mishkin describes his spiritual transition from a college student on “religious cruise control” to a conservative rabbi who prays three times a day and wants to nourish his soul through teaching. Mishkin runs his fingers under his copper, wire-rimmed glasses to rub his eyes. He re-fastens his navy yarmulke with metal hair clips used by prepubescent Jewish boys and ballet dancers.

The youngest of four brothers, Mishkin attended an orthodox Jewish day school in St. Louis between kindergarten and seventh grade. Initially, he tried to maintain a high level of religious observance.

“I was proud of my Jewish identity,” he explains. “I was really searching in the larger secular and academic world for the answers to the big questions in life. And I wasn’t so sure that Judaism was going to have the most satisfying answers for me. I even thought, ‘I can be less religious in college because I know how strong my foundation is.'”

During his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, Mishkin says he took a modern Jewish philosophy class “that put me back on my journey to reconnect to my Judaism.”

He grappled with philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “God in Search of Man,” discovering the tension between pure rational thinking and God’s presence in history.

“I had thought, ‘I’m the only one searching for God,'” he says. “And here Heschel turns it on its head and actually says, ‘God is searching for us.'”

Mishkin is still searching for his comfort zone in his new homez. Although Mishkin says he loves Chicago, he’ll never forget where his faded sneakers started their journey.

“I can coexist with Cubs fans just like in the pluralistic mindset,” he says, “but I and my future kids will be Cardinals fans.”