Since the resignation of its campus rabbi last May, the college has been without a Jewish spiritual leader and the Jewish student organization, Amherst College Hillel, has been without a director.
Members of Hillel and Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) staff have picked up the rabbi’s crucial logistical work — like bringing food and candles to Shabbat dinners and providing transportation for events — as the search for a new campus rabbi, who will also serve as the new assistant director of RSL, is underway.
Rabbi Bruce Seltzer announced his resignation after 21 years at the college to members of Hillel via email on May 10. Seltzer was initially hired for a joint position as Jewish chaplain for Smith College and Amherst, transitioning to work solely at Amherst in 2010.
“Since my arrival I have been honored to serve as your Rabbi, working side by side with students as we experienced many momentous changes in our country and campus, including four College presidents,” Seltzer said in his email. “Personal highlights include being the only staff member to speak at a pro-immigration rally at the start of the Trump administration … countless wonderful speakers and cultural events, and deep discussions over coffee.”
Hillel has felt the impact of Seltzer’s departure, said Ruth Zuraw ’25, Hillel’s head of events.
“Our baseline of operations has been affected,” she said. “I have a lot of gratitude for Harrison [Blum, the RSL director], who’s taken on a lot of that responsibility.”
Additionally, Zuraw said that she believes that many Jewish students feel unsatisfied spiritually, noting that there seems to be a “hesitant tolerance” for engaging with Jewish programming instead of the excitement she hopes for.
“[Jewish students] have a really hard time congregating,” she said. “There’s not a lot that people agree on, in religious, cultural, and political belief, and I don’t think [Hillel] has been successful in bridging those gaps in the past few years.”
Jewish students wishing to congregate in light of Hamas’ recent attacks on Israelis and the ongoing war have done so without the supervision of a campus rabbi by way of livestreamed Shabbat services, Jewish study spaces, and a conversation with local Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA) Rabbi Benjamin Weiner.
An opening for a part-time, non-benefited Jewish chaplain position within RSL was initially listed on June 13, and a search committee was subsequently formed over the summer for this part-time position. While no students were on the search committee, students had the opportunity to interview a candidate over Zoom and meet for lunch on campus.
However, after former Assistant Director of RSL Shannon Farrand-Bernardin transitioned to work in the Office of Student Affairs, the two openings were combined to list a singular full-time, benefited position — campus rabbi and assistant director of RSL — said Director of RSL Harrison Blum.
“We were hoping that a one-role, full-time, benefited position would be attractive enough for someone with the qualification of ‘rabbi’ to apply,” he explained. “People have applied to this larger role that did not apply to the previous role … [and] from farther away.”
A new search committee, which includes one student member, was put together the third week of September. The committee is conducting their first round of interviews this week, with plans to invite candidates who advance to the second round of interviews to campus for a lunch with students. Feedback from students who met with candidates will be factored into the selection process, according to Blum. The committee aims to begin onboarding the new rabbi by Nov. 15.
The committee is looking for someone who is able to unite Jewish students across different denominations, as well as cultural and political beliefs, said Lilliana Delise ’24, who is a member of the new search committee.
Additionally, Delise said, while the ideal candidate should be willing to “combat antisemitism through programming,” they should also “build community spaces that … are focused on Jewish faith and the joy of the religion.”
While half the role is dedicated to administrative work and programming for RSL as a whole, Blum is still hopeful that employing a full-time campus rabbi will provide additional support for Jewish students.
”This is the first time Religious and Spiritual Life will employ a full-time rabbi,” he said. “I think students are pleased with that expansion of support.”
In the meantime, members of Hillel e-board continue to organize Jewish events outside of Shabbat and the high holy days, and “whatever else [they] have the bandwidth to manage,” Zuraw said. “I think having an adult who could devote time to organizing those kinds of discussions could kind of bring people in who aren’t feeling satisfied about what we can offer.”