Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Rabbi brings a fresh perspective to Hillel

Wearing a gray T-shirt that reads Northwestern in Hebrew, a pair of worn tennis shoes and a 5 o’clock shadow, the Hillel Foundation’s executive director scrolls through his e-mails.

Rabbi Michael Mishkin, who was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, took on his new role at NU on July 2.

At 30, the rabbi is still full of youthful energy, and some would even say he was a natural teacher.

Weinberg senior Adam Blumenthal raved about Mishkin’s sermons.

“He’s very good at speaking on the fly,” Blumenthal said. “He has an immense amount of knowledge and the ability to orate with little preparation.”

Mishkin recently used his passion for modern Jewish philosophy and his experiences working with college students at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin. Although he is a conservative Jew, praying three times a day, 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 said. “I’m very comfortable in all the Jewish communities. As Hillel director, I want to respect where everyone is coming from and support them in that.”

Mishkin said teaching Jewish law to students is about finding meaning and structure behind the law. He said he presents Jewish sources without preaching his own values.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, students craved community and introspection, Mishkin said.

“They suspect that Judaism has a positive message in response, and it does,” he said.

During Rosh Hashana services, Mishkin spoke regarding the Jewish response to terrorism.

“There has always been evil in the world,” Mishkin said. “It stems from the idea that God gave man free will, and that free will can be good or bad. We’re seeing some people use it for bad, and this reminds us how powerful our actions really are.

“This reminds us that we can’t just study, we can’t just have conversations with our friends. We also have to do actions that are beneficial.”

The youngest of four brothers, Mishkin attended an Orthodox Jewish day school in St. Louis between kindergarten and seventh grade.

Early on, he tried to maintain a high level of religious observance and found himself on “religious cruise control” while he studied at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I was proud of my Jewish identity,” he said. “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.'”

Mishkin brings the same progressive attitude to Hillel. The rabbi said it is impossible to know how students will connect with Judaism, so he wants to attract them with various social, educational and religious programs.

Because several Jewish holidays fall at the beginning of the year, religious services may overshadow Hillel’s other social components, Mishkin said.

Now that High Holidays are over, the rabbi is preparing for social action programs and social events. On Sunday, for example, students will help renovate a 120-year-old synagogue in Chicago.

“A big piece of my vision … is to bring some of those talks that I’ve given to the community during services to Hillel,” Mishkin said.

Mishkin said 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 said.

Take Hillel’s recent program, “Let’s talk about sex with the rabbi.” Therapists, gynecologists and rabbis – people who understand the “curious nature of sex” – have important things to say about sexuality, Mishkin said.

He said sex can both be destructive and productive.

“Our society has an unhealthy relationship with sex,” he said. “Sex is a gift from God. The ability to obtain sexual pleasure is a gift.”

Mishkin wants to break stereotypes about Hillel and its services. Judaism is about culture, he said. That’s why he liked the slogan for this program.

“It was racy enough to catch attention,” Mishkin said.

Weinberg sophomore Dave Edelstein said a recent wave of student involvement at Hillel, including about 50 students dining at Friday night Shabbat, is because of Mishkin’s presence and an active freshman class.

“I can only hope that we bring a class in like this every year,” Mishkin said. “They have a lot of energy.”

Edelstein said Mishkin has not yet learned “rabbi politics.”

“He’s not far separated from the students here,” Edelstein said.

“He’s basically a college student with a rabbinic education,” Edelstein said. “He’s coming in here for a fresh start with his knowledge.”

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Rabbi brings a fresh perspective to Hillel