Rabbi Rachel Gartner, director of Jewish chaplaincy at Georgetown University, took a winding path to becoming a spiritual leader at an institution of higher education. From struggling to reconcile her feminist ideals with her cherished Jewish traditions as a young woman to transitioning from pulpit work to academia, Gartner has traveled a different road than most rabbis. In an interview with Diverse correspondent María Eugenia Miranda, the Huffington Post blogger and co-author of the sourcebook Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing talks of her journey and serving at a Jesuit institution.
Diverse: Do you find that it is harder to work with younger people in terms of making faith relevant in their lives?
Rachel Gartner: What I think is important to do for them and with them is [taking] our tradition and [putting] it in direct conversation with the issues that are most relevant to them — that can be sexual ethics; that can be business ethics; that can be the role of religion and politics; that can be integrity in the face of whatever. I think it’s a little bit more of a vigorous process.
DI: What are your thoughts on Jewish culture at a traditionally Jesuit institution like Georgetown?
RG: One of the things that I think Jewish communities do really well when they are traditional and rigorous is they create very intentional communities. Georgetown, out from the beginning, to me, [seemed] like an intentional community. I said, “Oh, wow. This is an academic institution that has a vision and a mission that goes beyond academics and includes the personal, the spiritual, the social.” I served in a Quaker school, and then Miami University and from where I sit the tone set by the university in each of those cases has really affected my ability to engage the faculty and move through the university with more or less influence.
For example, at Georgetown, you know, they have this 450-year-old educational tradition that was inspired by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who started the Jesuits, which does a few things: It has a very intentionally spiritual focus, a holistic approach with the students and it’s at once very particular in its outlook but it has a sort of radically pluralist view of how to approach religion. The language that they use is centered pluralism, which means they are standing in their tradition but they are inviting [others into the community]. So I never felt it was about merging, but because of that sentiment of centered pluralism I always felt invited. And here’s how: the way resources are spent. There’s a full-time imam; I’m a full-time rabbi; there’s a full-time Protestant minister; there’s a part-time priest who works with Eastern orthodox Catholics and, you know, many Jesuits with the Catholics. This is not unique, but it’s rare. At other schools the Hillel building may not even be on the main campus, but I’m in the central building.
DI: Are there any specific initiatives that support diversity efforts in the faith realm?
RG: There are interfaith courses led by the former rabbi — the rabbi that was my predecessor — and the imam and a Jesuit. There are also informal things we call faith and conversations that students initiated but that we support. So the former is a formal course and the latter is an informal situation that students have set up. The chaplains come into a lot of classrooms and talk. I have been invited to talk about women and Judaism or speak about Judaism on an interfaith panel. We have a luncheon series called women and faith. I came and talked about Judaism and relationships. There are a lot of informal student initiatives and informal chaplaincy initiatives and courses that encourage that kind of conversation.
DI: You co-authored Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing. How do you incorporate feminism into Judaism in your work with students?
RG: We are children of a tradition and we are builders of a tradition. We say to these young women, “You not only inherit, you also build.” I have a community of like-minded contemporaries who are taking tradition seriously and moving it forward. In the past, the men were evolving it, and women were evolving it, absolutely, behind the scenes. On the ground, some of the changes that you see are women. So that’s what we were trying to do with Rosh Hodesh to say, “Let’s find your feminism within your Judaism and see how we can build on it.”