New Hillel rabbi plans to focus on relationships, dialogue


Source: Brandon Bernstein

Rabbi Brandon Bernstein

Elena Sucharetza, Reporter

Rabbi Brandon Bernstein wants to build community across both Jewish and non-Jewish groups.

As the incoming rabbi at Fiedler Hillel, Bernstein said part of this community building involves open and honest dialogue, particularly in light of controversial issues at Northwestern such as the recent Israeli divestment movement.

“I want students to be able to come to me and say, ‘This is how I stand and I feel very passionately,’ or, ‘I’m confused, I’m nervous,’” Bernstein said. “My goal is to engage students to have their own opinions on matters such as this.”

Bernstein will begin his new job in July, after Rabbi Aaron Potek leaves to take a new position in Washington, D.C.

Michael Simon, Hillel’s executive director, said Bernstein’s passion for Judaism and connecting with others was part of what made Bernstein so desirable for the spot.

“(The rabbi) has to be someone that can be taken seriously and have a kind of gravitas with students who are already very involved in the Jewish community, but also someone who can really engage with students who don’t readily connect with their Judaism,” Simon said. “When interviewed, Brandon connected with a broad range of students.”

Simon said the warmth and dedication with which Bernstein approaches his projects and relationships will help Northwestern’s Jewish community grow. In particular, Bernstein’s receptive nature toward students makes him poised for success in the coming years, Simon said. He added Bernstein’s past experiences in Hillel environments are part of why he is so effective at engaging with students.

Previously, Bernstein has served as a rabbinic fellow at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and as one of the rabbis at Rutgers University’s Hillel.

Bernstein attributes his ability to navigate diverse groups to his years at the Hebrew Union College, a reform seminary in New York City, where he was ordained in 2014. He said the seminary gave him a strong connection to many Hebrew texts and equipped him with a readily available language to connect with students from more orthodox backgrounds.

“It’s not really about me, it’s about the students I’m connecting with,” Bernstein said. “So regardless of reform, conservative, orthodox or, ‘just Jewish,’ I’m interested in what makes them compassionate in and outside of Judaism.”

Mitchell Caminer, who was involved with the job search as Hillel’s co-president, said Bernstein’s mix of piety and affability is critical for a college campus religious figure. The Weinberg junior said the campus rabbi should be approachable as both an authority and somebody who readily gives advice. He added he hopes Bernstein will help students recognize the value of Judaism beyond faith.

While at Rutgers, Bernstein discovered he had a passion for social justice issues, which he said he wants to discuss with NU students. He said he hopes to investigate and launch conversation about what it means to think about social justice concerns and respond to them as a collective Jewish community.

“There’s a very famous phrase, it’s an oldie but a goodie: ‘Who is wise, the one who learns from every person,’” Bernstein said. “I hope to embrace that philosophy while I’m at Northwestern and learn from students, not just academically, but also how they view the world.”

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