The past few months have been an exciting time for Sara Rich.
In May, she became ordained as a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College in New York and married public relations executive Ezra Rich.
Two months later she was hired at Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life — its Hillel chapter — as its Jewish educator.
Classes will not start until Sept. 15, but Rich told NJ Jewish News she has already begun an outreach program to students currently on campus, even as she prepares lesson plans for the not-for-credit courses she will teach at CJL headquarters.
One of those classes, she said, covers “love, sex, and Jewish values”; another one, for graduate students, is on medieval Torah commentary; and a third one focuses on popular culture and Judaism.
In an Aug. 25 telephone interview, Rich said, “Our big project right now is engagement.” That objective was spelled out last November by her supervisor, CJL executive director Rabbi Julie Roth.
“Our mission is to reach every Jewish student at Princeton, but not just to reach them to come to a Passover seder once a year,” Roth told NJJN.
“At least 80 percent of the Jewish students are involved with Hillel at least once a year,” she said. “What we are really focused on with our strategic plan is deepening the impact on the 80 percent already involved.”
An estimated 700 of Princeton’s 7,500 students are Jewish. Among the 500 who are undergraduates, Roth said, 125 of them “are heavily involved with CJL on a weekly basis.”
But the Hillel chapter is seeking to improve those numbers.
After interviewing Jewish students on other campuses; hiring a consultant to run focus groups; and using a student, alumni, and staff task force to summarize findings and recommendations, CJL hired Rich and charged her with developing programs to attract non-Orthodox students whose primary interests may lie in secular activities.
“My job will be a lot of relationship-building,” said the new arrival. “It is about meeting students involved in campus life but who do not necessarily find themselves inside the Hillel building.
“Our goal is to know every Jewish student by name and by story,” said Rich. “The way you find out those stories is by having coffee dates, so I am looking to have coffee with several students every day. During those meetings I will get to know the students and have meaningful Jewish conversations with them. The goal is not to push anything down anybody’s throat, but if it comes up that students have questions about God, for example, then we can study text together. That is one example of how engagement can turn into education.”
The Orthodox community at Princeton is served by a group called Yavneh and its members bond together by sharing kosher meals and morning and evening prayer services; Rich may face harder challenges as she approaches a less observant constituency.
But she has a plan in mind to help non-Orthodox students “focus on the big life questions that we all face and how college can be a time for students to focus on that, but not necessarily be tied to observance.”
“Their Jewish spiritual development and feeling of belonging to the Jewish people can develop as well while they are in college,” she told NJJN.
“Our goal is…really about personal Jewish journeys and how can I be a facilitator for those journeys, being a rabbi and a supportive pastoral presence.”
Rich said her role at CJL does not include judging anyone. “We at CJL are safe people to talk to, and it is important to us that students feel like they can come as they are. Whatever their input is, it is welcome.”
Rich grew up in Crofton, Md., a suburb of Annapolis, and attended “a small Reform synagogue with a very committed membership.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in psychology, she studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, then worked as a student rabbi in Williamsport, Pa., and Brampton, Ont.
For the present she will commute to the Princeton campus from her home in Manhattan.