Rabbi Joan Friedman Joins Chaplain's Office

Rabbi Joan Friedman recently joined Carleton’s chaplain’s office staff as the associate chaplain for Jewish and interfaith life and coordinator of the Program in Ethical Reflection at Carleton (PERC). She talked recently with student writer Kelen Tuttle ’04 about how she was drawn to her field, her love of college communities, and working with students of all faiths and backgrounds.
Kelen Tuttle '04 Oct. 21, 2003

Rabbi Joan Friedman recently joined Carleton’s chaplain’s office staff as the associate chaplain for Jewish and interfaith life and coordinator of the Program in Ethical Reflection at Carleton (PERC).

Friedman has previously served as a congregational rabbi in Bloomington, Ind., as the Jewish chaplain at Colgate University, and on the faculties of American and Colgate Universities. Friedman completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, holds a master’s and Ph.D. in Jewish history from Columbia University, and was ordained as a reform rabbi by Hebrew Union College.

"Rabbi Friedman was by far the most experienced and knowledgeable candidate we had," Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum said. "She has a deep commitment to Judaism and its traditions and texts, while at the same time is open to and experienced in working with other faiths."

Friedman talked recently with student writer Kelen Tuttle ’04 about how she was drawn to her field, her love of college communities, and working with students of all faiths and backgrounds.

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Tell us a little about yourself. Why were you drawn to be a rabbi, and how did you get to where you are?

That’s actually a very long story. I came from a sort of typical 50s, 60’s suburban Jewish family who were pretty unobservant. I was sent to Hebrew school because my friends were going, and then when I turned out to be a good student I got a partial scholarship to go to Camp Ramah, the Conservative Judaism summer camp. It was absolutely the right thing for me to do. I had never even had Shabbat dinner before. On Friday nights my mother would usually light the Shabbat candles, but that was before we would go out to watch my brother’s little league game, or eat in a Chinese restaurant.

The camp showed me what it meant to live an organic Jewish life, which is to say that the whole community, for eight weeks, operated on Jewish time. This didn’t mean that everyone was late for everything, but rather that, for example, the post office would deliver the mail on Saturdays to the camp office, but our mail delivery came on Sundays. The rhythm of Jewish life was present at the morning services, in classes, and even through sports. We also participated in social action. That first summer, we were bussed into Springfield, Massachusetts, in order to tutor kids in reading and math at this little storefront community center in an inner-city ghetto in Springfield. It was the summer of 1967, and we had counselors who had just come back from volunteering in Israel during the Six Day War. The next summer I went back, and of course it was 1968, a political year, and the whole camp was organized into a mock Democratic National Convention. Of course, we nominated Eugene McCarthy.

Those two summers really changed my life, because I saw what it meant to live the ideal Jewish religious life, which means fulfilling the responsibilities both to God and to human beings. At that point I decided that when I went to college I wanted to go someplace where they offered Jewish study courses, so I did that. I was also very involved in campus Jewish life and in my senior year I worked part time for the Hillel Foundation, and the year after I graduated, I worked full time, and at the time it was very a natural progression. I wanted to give to others what had been given to me. But it was a very radical decision too, because when I graduated from college in 1974, as yet only one woman in this country (and one in 1930’s Germany) had become rabbis. That was just the time when the whole debate over women’s role in religious life was beginning.

I’m curious how you see your religious spirituality translate into the role of a rabbi, and how they correspond or how they don’t.

I think that there’s always a gap between the ideal and reality. I ended up going to rabbinic school in the Reform movement, because they were accepting women and the Conservative movement, in which I had grown up, was not at the time. And that was something of a struggle, because my own beliefs and orientation are more towards the Conservative movement – capital-C Conservative, that has nothing to do with political conservative – and so I found it difficult to be comfortable with the way I was serving the congregation because in terms of day-to-day practice, things went on there that I was uncomfortable with.

I think in general, I much prefer a campus environment; in part because I think that at heart I am still 19 or 20. I just feel more comfortable with the rhythms of campus life, but also because college students are so involved in the great questions of life, and they come out in all ways and at all different times. I think that in a regular congregation, people have to a large extent set these questions aside and are concerned with other things. I have colleagues who are very, very gifted at being able to remind their 35-year olds that there are these significant questions that need to be addressed. But college students are already there.

Tell us about your academic history before you came to Carleton.

Let’s see, I’ll go backwards, it’s easier. Last year, I was the Interim Director at of the Jewish Studies Program at American University in Washington, D.C. I was teaching full-time, in a one-year sabbatical replacement position. I taught a two-semester survey of Jewish history and civilization, a course in the history department on the Holocaust, a course in the religion department called Contemporary Jewish Issues, and a Jewish studies course called Voices of Modern Jewish Literature, in which we read autobiographies and memoirs by Jewish writers from the late seventeenth century on.

I also finished my Ph.D. last year – the 21-year doctoral program. I do not recommend it to anyone else! My dissertation is titled "Solomon B. Freehof, the ‘Reform Responsa,’ and the Shaping of American Reform Judaism." It is a study of the work of one of the central figures in American Reform movement of the 20th century. Freehof was the movement’s chief authority in matters of Jewish law. Reform Judaism does not consider itself bound by Jewish law, but nevertheless colleagues and other people sent him literally hundreds and hundreds of questions over the years. It’s a great paradox. My dissertation approached the questions of upon what basis was he answering these questions, how did he understand the relationship between Reform Judaism and classic rabbinic legal tradition, and where does this fit in the larger history of this movement. Hardly anybody has looked at this stuff seriously before.

Prior to that, I spent two years in Cincinnati having the luxury of being a full-time dissertation researcher and writer, and working part-time. Prior to that I spent six years as the Jewish Chaplain at Colgate University, and prior to that I spent five years as rabbi of the one synagogue in Bloomington, Indiana, which was a wonderful community.

Obviously the campus life itself drew you to Carleton, but what else drew you to our community?

I have a couple of close friends who are alums, and so I had heard about what a good place it is. I’m from New England, as you know, so I like northern climates, and I had visited the Twin Cities a few times before and I had always thought that it would be a great place to live, so when I saw the position advertised, I thought this would be a great opportunity.

How have you found the students at Carleton, both in their faith and their expression of religion?

I think students here are terrific. They take serious questions seriously and they spend a lot of time and effort on them. It’s my suspicion that most students here probably do not consider their personal spiritual life to be on the same level as, say, academics, but there are a large number of students that do, and now that we’re almost half way through the term, I’ve already had a lot of interesting, exciting conversations with students that I have not had in the same depth in other places.

Along those lines, your title is "Associate Chaplain for Jewish and Interfaith Life." How do you see these two roles connecting or intersecting?

It’s a big, cumbersome title, but the reason for it is because in the chaplaincy model that Carolyn Fure-Slocum has created here, the chaplain is here to facilitate spiritual life for all religious groups, not just to work with the students of one’s own group. Jewish students are in a little bit of a different situation because it’s the largest single religious presence on campus that is unrepresented in the local community. So to some extent I’m here to make up that lack and be that presence. But I’m also a part of the chaplaincy staff, so I’m here for everybody.

How has it been coming into your new role at Carleton in a term that [Chaplain] Carolyn Fure-Slocum is on sabbatical?

September was a lot. I really felt like I was just trying to keep all the balls in the air. It’s much easier now that I’m getting a handle on my responsibilities and the community here. And of course all the major Jewish holidays are in the fall, and being in a new place there’s always a steep learning curve. But it was a lot to learn all at once. And I know that I’m not yet taking the initiative and doing the sorts of things I will want to do over the long term, but you cannot do that in your first month at a new school. At the moment I’m just trying to maintain everything for when Carolyn comes back. And then we’ll have some interesting plans we can work on together. Carolyn has honestly a terrific influence and presence on this campus and is very much an integral part of Carleton.