Tufts Hillel has hired Rabbi Jonah Winer as the new director of religious life. Winer, a Toronto native, has begun working with students and Hillel staff during his first few weeks on campus.
Before assuming his role at Tufts, Winer was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a small modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York. It was during his time at YCT that Winer first heard about Tufts Hillel.
“My closest friend from rabbinical school is a Tufts alum,” Winer said. “He has been talking my ear off about not only what an amazing experience he had at Tufts in general, but at Tufts Hillel in particular.”
As Winer entered the interview process for the position, he was able to gain his own insight into the values that Tufts Hillel embodies.
“When I interviewed here and was checking out the scene of this kind of work, it was just like so obviously the case that [Tufts Hillel has] beautiful values, a beautiful community, [is] very down to earth and [is] spiritually in touch in a way that seemed great to me,” Winer said.
The Tufts Hillel staff also felt that Winer would be a great addition to the Tufts community. Rabbi Naftali Brawer, the executive director at Tufts Hillel and Tufts’ Jewish chaplain, described why Winer stood out in the interview process.
“In addition to his infectious energy, warmth of personality, wealth of knowledge and creativity Rabbi Jonah stood out as someone who would meet students where they are, on their terms and support them unconditionally on their individual Jewish journeys,” Brawer wrote in an email to the Daily.
Winer spoke about what he hopes to accomplish in his new role and his mission to help build a Hillel community where all feel welcome.
“I want, first of all, anyone to feel welcome coming into Hillel, coming to anything we do. It’s really for everybody,” Winer said. “I really want our core constituency, Jewish students, wherever they are, whatever their Judaism looks like, to feel like they can come to Hillel, they can come talk to me, they can come to the space and know that it’s for them.”
Moreover, Winer discussed how he sees his role as a facilitator to Tufts students, where he works alongside students to further their ideas, rather than his own.
“I really feel my primary role is empowering students,” Winer said. “Really, what I want is to be the person who helps students take on [leadership] roles for themselves… I think it would be a real tragedy if my role was to sort of be another major space-taking-up presence. What I really want to do is try [to] shift that onto the amazing students we have as much as possible.”
Eliyah Lister, a student serving as vice president of religious and spiritual programming at Hillel, spoke about how Winer has already made an effort in his first weeks on campus to interact with as many Hillel students as possible.
“He reached out to everyone on the Hillel board and asked everyone to have a one-on-one meeting with him in some capacity,” Lister, a junior, said. “It wasn’t just the president or the vice presidents, it was everyone who has any sort of leadership role on the Tufts Hillel board, which I think is great because obviously everyone has their different opinions and their different views… and no voice is less or more important than another.”
Despite the excitement about Winer joining the Tufts community, some students are hesitant about Winer’s appointment, as he is another Orthodox Rabbi and Hillel does not employ a Rabbi from other prominent Jewish denominations.
Winer spoke about this issue directly, describing how his focus is not denominational, but instead centered around people who are passionate about their faith.
“I really want to use this power and position that I have to bring in as wide an array and diversity of people as possible. … I think it’s really, really, really, important to bring in rabbinic and non-rabbinic leadership of all sorts, of Jews of all kinds of backgrounds, with all sorts of practices. I think that's absolutely an essential part of the work for me and a serious moral duty,” Winer said. “I’m Orthodox, [but] I’m not a big denominational guy. I really feel strongly that the Judaism I’m excited about is intentional Judaism, whatever form that looks like and takes for people.”
Brawer also described how Winer stood out from candidates specifically because of his commitment to serving Jewish students of all denominations.
“Rabbi Jonah was not hired as an Orthodox rabbi; he was hired to be rabbi for our entire diverse community of students, and it was his commitment to Jewish pluralism that stood out to us in the interview process,” Brawer wrote. “Jonah is every student’s rabbi!”