Initiation By Fire

Shira and Rabbi Ari Neuman, with baby Moshe, are now serving as the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus couple at the University of Maryland.
Shira and Rabbi Ari Neuman, with baby Moshe, are now serving as the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus couple at the University of Maryland.

For Rabbi Ari and Shira Neuman, new Torah educators for the University of Maryland’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, the past couple of months have been a whirlwind.

In July, Shira gave birth to their first son, Moshe, and in August they moved from New Jersey to College Park to begin their new jobs.

“I think it was two days after students got here [that] we had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot,” said Shira Neuman. “So everyone was a little crazed at the beginning, but it was great because it gave us the opportunity to jump right in.”

The initiation by fire, she said, helped the couple get to know the students right away. Throughout the holidays, the Neumans hosted meals and taught classes and met the students in the Hillel for celebrations.

“The community here is tremendous,” said Rabbi Neuman. “It’s very exciting working with [the students].”

The Neumans, who met when both were advisers for upstate New York’s NCSY, have a strong background in teaching. Rabbi Neuman studied psychology at Yeshiva University before earning his master’s in medieval Jewish history at YU and his ordination from RIETS, YU’s rabbinical college. While studying for his ordination, he served as NCSY city director and as a rabbinic intern at Young Israel of Plainview and the Riverdale Jewish Center.

Shira Neuman received her bachelor’s in psychology from Stern College for Women before completing her master’s degree in Jewish education. She also worked as an NCSY city director, in addition to roles as unit head at Camp Shalom in Old Tappan, N.J., and NCSY adviser in upstate New York.

The Neumans say their new position is more of a lifestyle than a job. In addition to events or classes held almost every day of the week, the couple also takes part in things like monthly onegs [celebrations] at their home, twice-a-month women’s beit medrash [study sessions] and a monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering for women.

Although they say they try to keep as regular a schedule as they can, they have to be flexible in order to be accessible for the students.

“No two days are the same,” said Rabbi Neuman. “There is structure that we put into our day, but there’s stuff that is meta-structural — that trumps and changes the structure that we had created for ourselves in the process of the day.”

When they were looking for jobs, they found themselves drawn to working with college students.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for working with every single age,” said Rabbi Neuman, noting that the autonomy and maturity of the college students they interact with every day is a somewhat refreshing contrast to their former job working with high school teens.

“Ari and Shira bring a real sense of depth and willingness to develop personal relationships with our students,” said Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel. “Their classes have been well attended, and their home filled with students seeking a family to connect with.”

Now that they have had the opportunity to settle into their new position, the Neumans have begun to look for ways to improve the programs and, where possible or necessary, make the job their own.

Replacing the previous couple, who had held the post for seven years, they said, provides its own set of unique challenges. Looking to the upperclassmen for assistance, they will re-evaluate the programs they inherited to see what is and is not working and try to tweak the outdated ones to maximize student involvement and interest. But ultimately, they said, “We were hired to be ourselves.”

Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter —

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