Jeremy Fierstien, 33, originally pursued rabbinical school for selfish reasons — he wanted to affirm his own Judaism. But about halfway through his tenure at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, he decided he could use the rabbinate as a vehicle to make sure more Jews grew up with positive Jewish experiences that Fierstien felt were lacking in his small hometown of Bradley Beach, N.J.
As the son of a congregational rabbi in a predominantly Italian Catholic and Irish Protestant area, growing up practicing Judaism was a conflicting ordeal. His close non-Jewish friends would happily accommodate him on Shabbat, but in school, teachers told him “all the non-Jews are out to kill you,” Fierstien recalled. “It just didn’t compute.”
His path led him to Hillel, where he found a “we’re all in it together” mentality toward Judaism that appealed to him more than congregational life. And with Hillel he’s stayed; he took over as executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on July 1.
“Right when I figured out that there were a lot of values and lessons that I was taught as a child in school that did not agree with the experience that I had at home, I started to rebel and break out of the roles that I was put into,” said Fierstien. “I love being a part of a community, but being a congregational rabbi was never my bag. To me, it is more important to lead from within. Congregational life comes with the baggage of ‘rabbi on high, Jew in the pew,’ and I am much more into the leadership model of grassroots organizing and learning together.”
Since taking up his new role, Fierstien has been active in both getting to know members of his community and expanding the opportunities for Jews and non-Jews alike to participate in constructive Shabbat experiences.
For example, Fierstien helped to start a weekly kabbalah Shabbat experience in which students are led in meditation, reflection and song. “We really just have an end-of-the-week cap to lead into a more Shabbat feel after a week of classes ends. We have anywhere between 10 to 25 students attend any given week, which is really exciting because this is not something that we have offered before to such an extent.”
Once a month, UMBC Hillel also hosts a partnership Shabbat, where it joins other student groups and organizations on campus for programming. Most recently, Hillel hosted the Catholic Retrievers for a game of Jeopardy and an educational Shabbat dinner.
“The vice president of our student group, who also is an intern, has been focusing on creating as many partnerships with student groups as possible,” Fierstien said. “The goal is to have a free campuswide seder, which I have already gotten the vice president of the university to buy into. We want to have all of these partners to cosponsor the event with us and the Office of the Vice President to have a mock seder leading into Passover to capstone the year of partnership.”
Fierstien has also been working with another intern to focus on social justice through education and create a lecture series about social justice that will serve to educate the community and address systemic issues related to whatever topic is chosen at each lecture. Opportunities will also be provided for students to volunteer in the Greater Baltimore community as well as at UMBC.
“I want to be able to teach the skills and facilitate the opportunities for my community members to lead and run the show, with myself and my staff as a resource more than anything else,” said Fierstien.
Part of why Fierstien was drawn to Hillel was that it enabled him to serve more as a resource than as a peer.
“It is very hard to navigate the relationship as a congregational rabbi when you become friendly with the people who also technically sign your checks,” he said. “The sense of professional separation is a very welcome change for me. I think lines can be fuzzier when you are really living and working with a community to the extent that a congregational rabbi is.”
Fierstien came from the Hillel at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where there was a tight but tiny Jewish community. In Baltimore, he’s found the inspiration that first drew him to the organization.
“I think the diversity found in the Jewish community here in Baltimore is really appealing and provides an incredible opportunity for learning and growth for everyone involved,” he said. “With the diversity and strength of the community, it really feels like everyone is in it together.”