Jewish Conversations: The Exodus

Jewish Conversations: The Exodus

May 2, 2012
Series connects and strengthens community among Jewish faculty and staff
The prophet Elijah’s nametag sits unclaimed at the welcome table.

Faculty, staff and a few students filter in for a familiar Passover ritual. But this is not a typical seder. Tonight they’re going off script.

Usually a seder — which means “order” in Hebrew — leaves little room for conversation between readings and the re-telling of the Exodus story. But this observance aims to engage attendees in a discussion of the meaning of liberation and a modern examination of the Exodus narrative.

This gathering is the latest event in a series of conversations about the Exodus organized through the chaplaincy. The attendees at Jewish Conversations are part a growing community of Jewish faculty and staff at the University of Richmond.

“When I came to campus, I realized that there were a lot of Jewish faculty and staff,” says Andrew Goodman, director of Jewish life and campus rabbi. “There was a sense that they didn’t know about each other.”

Goodman came on board with a list of six faculty and staff who were Jewish. The conversation series has brought many more out of the woodwork.

“It’s really identifying a community that no one knew existed,” he says. “Now I have around 40 faculty and staff on my roster.”

The series is open to individuals of any faith tradition, but Goodman wants to keep the conversation uniquely Jewish. “Judaism is part of their identity that they haven’t had the flexibility to explore and live into while being here,” he says.

Providing a welcoming place for Jewish discussion has been an essential part of building and strengthening community among faculty and staff. This series gives people the opportunity to explore their faith and culture without feeling the need to defend or justify it to anyone.

“The idea was to give people a space to have substantive conversations,” Goodman says. “From talking to faculty and staff, that was something they are looking for.”

Goodman adapted the program from a similar dialogue series at Ohio State University. His plan operates on the idea that there are three parts to every Jewish conversation: self, partnership and substance.

The campus rabbi elaborates on those principles: leaders must bring something they are passionate about (self); everyone can converse and ask questions (partnership); and there should be a common text or material source to keep members focused (substance).

“There’s nothing that is inherently Jewish or groundbreaking about it,” Goodman says. “But the methodology is great because you don’t necessarily see it in higher education all the time.”

This spring, the program evolved from a series of specific events to a semester-long curriculum focusing on the Exodus narrative. “We realized that there wasn’t necessarily a thread,” Goodman explains. “The hour-long conversations are awesome and you never want to finish them when you have to. This way we’re able to refer to other things and tie in other texts and conversations.”

Discussion leaders approached the Exodus narrative through sessions focusing on storytelling, social responsibility, film portrayals and even personal experiences of exile. The series culminated with the Passover seder.

“Everyone comes from a different religious background,” Goodman says. “Joining those voices has been really nice.”

Goodman would like the series to eventually lead to a vibrant Jewish community on campus and to provide a mentoring network for the Jewish students he also serves.

“We’re identifying Jewish faculty and staff who are excited about engaging in this community as Jews in addition to all of the specialties they bring,” Goodman says. “If they’re comfortable, I’d love to be able to have them as mentors — not only to each other — but to our students who are struggling with their Jewish beliefs and how to reconcile those values with academic disciplines.”