Spiritual Guidance for Secular Youth: NYU's Jewish Chaplain Tackles the Culture Wars

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna has his hands full helping students who feel they're being assailed by either the left or the right. Good thing he has his Muslim colleague to pitch in

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Credit: AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD, AP / John Minchillo
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

UPDATE: NYU chaplain to be first chief rabbi in the United Arab Emirates

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, an Orthodox rabbi who grew up in Montreal, feels at home in New York, and like his Jewish students at NYU, he knows that his story is at the heart of the American story. To him, Jews must play a role in helping believers from all religions enjoy the grace that the Jews’ forebears enjoyed in America.

I sat down with him to talk about the changing narrative of young Jews in America, and about crisis management on campus, part of his role as a chaplain at a famous university.

It’s hard to translate the word “chaplain” into Hebrew. On the one hand, you’re a clergyman attached to a secular institution – we have this in Israel. On the other hand, you and your partner, Imam Khalid Latif, serve students of all religions, not only Jews and Muslims. How come two religious leaders who represent two minorities ended up as NYU’s chaplains?

“Imam Latif and I have been partners since 2007. We had the opportunity to launch and shape our positions. There was no chaplain before us. Most American universities that have chaplains are Christian. Many private universities started as part of a particular Christian denomination, and therefore the chaplain is always from that denomination.

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“NYU, although founded early in the 19th century, has emerged as a secular school, so it never had this attachment and it’s unique – first that it didn’t have a chaplain and it's not Christian. Part of it was simply circumstantial; this job didn’t exist and the imam and I advanced and shaped it together. In the beginning we worked closely with a Baptist minister and a Catholic priest, but as things settled it was the imam and I.”

So what do a rabbi and an imam actually do in a place like NYU?

“Outside formal matters such as graduations, there are a number of things – all matters related to religion around the university, in particular policy and during crises.

“Policy, for example, could be an observant Jewish student who says, ‘I can’t attend a class on a particular day because it falls on a Jewish holiday.’ There’s a policy on these matters, but let’s say the student says he doesn’t write on hol hamo’ed [the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkot] and can’t be in class. It’s more complicated. Or if he wants to join his family outside New York, is it a family matter or a religious matter? There are questions that a professor or a dean couldn’t answer, and then they’ll often consult me.”

What about crises?

“It’s quite common for someone to come up with a complaint about a lecturer who said in class that the Israeli army is implementing apartheid and Nazi-like policy toward the Palestinians. A student may come to me and say ‘my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and how does this professor dare, and it’s her grandmother’s yahrzeit [death anniversary] today, and how crazy is it that I have to hear that thing in class? So in that case, if a student comes to me, what do I do?”

What do you do?

“First, I’ll ask the student, ‘Did you speak with the professor and explain why it bothers you?’ Then I’ll ask, ‘What do you want me to do: talk to the professor? Talk to the dean? Often if a professor makes this kind of politically charged comment in the classroom, he'll insist on his right to academic freedom to express himself .... The student may file a grievance, and I'll provide the information for that. Of course, not only Jewish students take offense. There are many, many, many cases where other students take offense – black students, LGBT students, also students who are white, Christian and Republican. Many people are taking offense.”

The professor’s comment about the Israeli army isn’t really a religion-related crisis. So even though you’re a rabbi and a chaplain and 100 percent American, you’re deeply engaged with a national conflict taking place in the Middle East.

“It’s true that crises break out in Israel and not around religion, and two or three times a semester such crises erupt. I’m talking about a crisis that will occupy me for a whole week.”

Offense is part of many political conversations. Can you engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without taking sides?

“In crisis situations, I have to consider both the interest of the Jewish community and the interest of the university; for example, if there’s a controversial guest speaker on campus, Israeli or Palestinian. It happened when we had MK Tzipi Hotovely, or [UN ambassador] Danny Danon or MK Haneen Zoabi or Omar Barghouti [a founder of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement]. Ideally, what every university aspires to is to allow people from a wide range of opinions to come and express their views.

“But at the same time, most universities don’t welcome controversies. They don’t want fights. Now, there's a conflict of interest with certain speakers .... For them, it would be better to have a strong response. And Israeli politicians are no exception to this. They also want video clips of their arrival on campus, and of the protest against them, so they can go back to their constituency and say ‘look at me how brave I am.’”

When Tzipi Hotovely is invited, are you informed in advance?

“Usually yes, I get it from all directions, and it was very important for us to host Tzipi Hotovely. There was another campus that refused to host her [Princeton]. We wanted to host her, but it was important to us that this happen without losing control. We don’t provide service to just anyone who wants to talk. We’re a university, a significant and important platform in which there are thousands of Jewish students studying together with tens of thousands of others. You won’t always get to say whatever you want here ... it’s not just politicians ....

“I’ll give you an example. A person named Gavin McInnes showed up last year; he’s a media personality on the right, and he found a student club to host him at NYU. There were protests against him during which pepper spray was sprayed at him, and there were police. He came with a television crew that got everything on camera, and then, the following week, McInnes was interviewed on Fox News and on television programs that broadcast the videos his team had documented.

“He was 10 minutes at NYU, that’s what he needed. He took advantage of the university for media purposes. And he understood that you have to be at war. No one wanted to hear his speech. People wanted to see on YouTube the punch someone got there, or the part where someone sprayed pepper spray.

“It happens all the time. And I tell them: We're going to run it so that it’s the least likely that there will be a fight, and you have to think whether it’s still worth it for you. If all you’re looking for is the short clip that you can put on Facebook where a student gets up and yells something against you, we’ll manage it so that it won't happen and maybe it won't be worth it for you. Such people come here all the time, not only in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We need to make sure things stay under control.”

Israel not a necessity

You said you have to consider the interest of the Jewish community, but this interest is divided when it comes to Israel, and it’s also changing. In all your professional positions you've worked closely with American Jewish millennials, students in particular. Could you explain them to me?

“You know how many American Jews, age 18 to 26, have chosen to travel to Israel with Birthright? Sixty percent. This means that two out of every five young people refused an offer to fly to Israel for free, whenever they wanted, with their friends. They’re not interested.

“Now that’s amazing. I think part of it has to do with the fact that American Jews feel they’re Americans. They feel politically empowered here, they feel they’re part of the political process. They’re not left behind, they’re represented in the media and they see themselves in the mirror when they look at America. For many of them Israel is a reality but not a necessity, and like any country, some things are wrong and others are not.

“Many young American Jews obviously have left-leaning politics, and there are a few things about Israel they don’t understand: If Israel’s so smart and is the world’s startup capital, why can’t they solve the thing with the Palestinians? ‘Take all these smart people and figure it out.’

“They have no recollection of Israel as an underdog, so there’s a very extreme disconnect between the language of Israeli politicians that sometimes presents Israel as endangered and victimized, and what they see coming from Israel, which is a projection of power. That causes a decreasing attachment to Israel. But at the same time, there’s a rising number of Orthodox Jews who feel Israel is their first or second home. They’ve been there multiple times, they have family there, and they’re very passionate about Israel

There’s a rupture.

“The rupture in the Jewish community isn’t happening all at once, so we don’t necessarily see it. Remembering the Holocaust and fighting anti-Semitism used to be the things that united all American Jewish communities. Supporting Israel was actually part of that. We felt like we needed to fight back, we needed power, political power in the U.S., financial power, and also we wanted Israel to be a powerful country.

“Now, not only is the Holocaust generation passing away, not only is Israel a regional superpower, but also, in tandem, Jews are becoming loved. In all the research you see that Jews are on the top of the list as the most loved and accepted minority. Jews are in the core of the American narrative.”

And we haven't talked about religious issues – that division between American Jews has a lot to do with religion.

“When we’re talking about the non-Orthodox, it’s important to distinguish between those who are affiliated and those who aren’t. The affiliated base knows that Israel has a pluralism problem that’s not a secondary issue .... It affects what’s going on at the Western Wall and not recognizing Reform conversions and marriages. We’re locked in a battle of state-religion, and for them there’s no longer the Israel-can-do-no-wrong approach. If a Conservative rabbi is arrested in Israel, the response of the Jewish organizations to such a thing would be far more ballistic than, let’s say, occupation issues.”

Let’s go back to you and Imam Latif. You're neighbors, close friends and run a center for interfaith dialogue and cooperation called Of Many.

“Of Many was founded with the imam and with Chelsea Clinton. It’s a long story, but basically what the institution is doing is an academic program that guides people in interfaith leadership. We offer collaborations like trips and joint missions for Muslims and Jews, and we offer programs to other universities and campuses that want to create an environment of mutual sensitivity.”

What does that mean?

“The population in the U.S., at American universities, is rapidly diversified in ways that people didn’t quite anticipate, and therefore the structures, policies and ethos haven’t evolved as quickly. Part of the work we’re doing is to introduce a language that can help people understand this, provide models for how it could work and actually train people.

“I’ll give you a concrete example. In the past, if a university built a religious space for students, it was meant to serve Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Now any space has to accommodate not only Catholics, Protestants and Jews but also Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs ... Jains and then also humanists and more. So we’re trying to do help design those spaces.

I’m thinking: I don’t know many rabbis, Orthodox like you, and also non-Orthodox, who would be passionate about the religious expressions of non-Jews.

“The reason I’m passionate about this is that Jews in the United States have benefited a great deal from the welcoming and sensitivity of others who didn’t need to do this for us, and therefore it’s our responsibility to do it for others.”

Everything is politicized

So you feel that Jewish self-confidence, which young students share, should be translated into bringing others in.

“A great part of our religion is a reminder of yetziat mitzraim, the Exodus from Egypt, and we are commanded not to forget, because we have to behave in a certain way toward gerim [strangers], orphans and widows. We were strangers in Egypt and therefore we need to treat the stranger in our midst. To me it’s really at the core of what it means to be a Jew: not to forget the times that we were oppressed, and not to forget our responsibility once we acquire power.”

Old and maybe somewhat trivial Jewish ideas, and yet, if you try to implement them in today’s world, these are the most controversial and divisive issues – in Israel as well as in America.

“In the U.S. we live in a polarized society, which means that people give much less weight to the question of a specific policy, and a lot more weight to the question of whether you belong to the right team. Everything is politicized; we redraw the map around our own team. There are Jews from the left who believe that the greatest threat is neo-Nazis and white supremacy, and that the BDS movement has no weight, and there are right-wing Jews who are certain that BDS is as dangerous as nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran, but two swastikas don’t bother them.

How is this reflected at NYU?

“We had swastikas at the law school several times, we had white-supremacy posters put up at the student center ... [though] they were removed immediately. And we also have a group of students who promote BDS. It’s all very small, but what ends up happening is that every echo chamber amplifies the boogeyman on the opposite side, so if there’s a swastika you better believe that left-wing circles will go ballistic.

“And vice versa. Anytime there’s a hint of BDS activity, it will grow big. There was an initiative by a left-wing group that the university will support activists to get into Israel. It wasn’t a boycott resolution, just a letter saying ‘let people into the country. These are Americans, Jews, let them into the country.’ All of a sudden I get emails from all over. It’s crazy.”

Let’s talk about your family for a moment. You and your wife are raising six children in downtown Manhattan. You and your sons walk around wearing big kippot and tzitzit. This outfit couldn’t work in many places in North America, let alone Europe.

“I feel safe in New York City; this is the basic point .... Two, the culture of New York. I grew up in Montreal and went to college in another part of New York, but it was only when I moved down to NYU in 2002 that I realized that Jewish ethnicity is everywhere: bagels and Seinfeld, that’s everywhere. There's a kind of New York Jewish culture that’s permissive.

“Riding on that, I thought I could be myself openly, a religious Jew. Why hide it? Also, the culture of New York City, certainly downtown where we live, is that you have all kinds of people coming from all over the world. People dressed however they want, so I’m going to dress however I want.”

And then, as NYU’s chaplain, you find yourself with a kippa and tzitzit not only off Washington Square but also in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where NYU runs a university as part of its global network with 1,200 students, some of them local citizens, some Americans, including Jews.

The campus of New York University Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi. "In 2010 I start visiting NYU in Abu Dhabi, where we also have some Jewish students".Credit: Via Bloomberg

“When it was suggested in 2010 that I start visiting NYU in Abu Dhabi, where we also have some Jewish students, I said I’ll go only if it’s safe enough for me to go dressed the way I dress. They said come, and I walk around there with a kippa and tzitztit. I’ve gone every year for the past eight years twice a year exactly as I am now.

“I go there twice a year for five to 10 days each time including Shabbat; actually I’m going for Shabbat. The first time I went was the weekend that the Mossad killed a Hamas official in Dubai [Mahmoud al-Mabhouh]. I woke up in the morning and I saw the newspaper. I was surprised, I was afraid, but I didn’t realize how safe the country was.”

What do you do there?

“I helped develop the strategy around religious expression at the university because obviously it’s a Western liberal university, but it’s also located in an Arab country that’s paying for that. So what happens with a student who’s gay, and a number of them are gay – can they establish an LGBT club? Can they organize events within the school where their classmates are people from the Emirates? You don’t want to embarrass them, they don’t want to embarrass you, but the students say we want to express ourselves. Or for Rosh Hashanah, could we organize a dinner for that? Could we advertise? Could we put a Magen David on the flyer?”

Difficult dilemmas. What are the answers?

“The guiding principle is that everyone knows there’s a border and no one wants to approach the border, so there’s tremendous calculation and consideration.”

I don’t know many people who visit Abu Dhabi regularly. Tell me about one cool thing to do in Abu Dhabi.

“Now it’s the Louvre, they opened a Louvre, and they have a wing for ancient writings, where a 15th-century Koran, a 15th-century Christian Bible, and a 15th-century humash [a Torah printed in book form] are displayed. That means a lot.”

Back to New York. Looking at the Jewish students, what remains of American Jewish identity?

“There are two different Jewish identities – the right and the left .... On the right: Orthodox, going to day schools, visiting Israel, some often voting Republican and thinking the biggest threat is the left wing. And then the others will see themselves as Americans first, vote Democrat, believe that the most Jewish thing is to fight for social justice, and with high intermarriage rates.

“The gap between these parts is supported by the educational system, so there’s not going to be a lot of connection between these two camps. You don’t have the army, like in Israel, to bring them together; instead they have the college campus. We’re trying to create that kind of experience for Orthodox and liberal Jews on campus. I believe that’s why campuses are catching the imagination and the fury of so many people.”

The Hebrew version of this interview will be published on the blog site of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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