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On becoming a rabbi PDF Print E-mail
By Nancy Abeshaus   
Friday, 23 November 2012 17:35
Two rabbinic interns at area Hillels share their stories

Amy Olson, executive director of URI Hillel, and Nathan (Nate) DeGroot, rabbinical intern, stand in front of URI Hillel  on the Kingston campus. /Nancy AbeshausAmy Olson, executive director of URI Hillel, and Nathan (Nate) DeGroot, rabbinical intern, stand in front of URI Hillel on the Kingston campus. /Nancy AbeshausNathan (Nate) DeGroot and Steven Jablow are well on their way to becoming rabbis. Full-time students at Hebrew College rabbinical school in Newton Centre, Mass., they currently serve as rabbinic interns, fulfilling part of their academic obligations.

DeGroot is at the Norman M. Fain Hillel Center on URI’s Kingston campus; Jablow shares space with other interfaith clergy in Bryant University’s Office of Campus Ministry in Smithfield. Although these two future rabbis are headed in the same direction toward a shared destination – namely ordination – their roads to rabbinical school were markedly different.

In Kingston

DeGroot, 24, grew up in Hamilton, Mass, then – and now – a community of few Jews.  “My parents have a deep Jewish identity and a spiritual essence,” said DeGroot. “We celebrated Jewish holidays at home, and I had a bar mitzvah at a Conservative shul we joined for a year.”

As a teen, he reached out to connect with Jewish peers through the JCC in Marblehead, Mass. “I played basketball in the Maccabi Games and made some good friends there,” said DeGroot. At 17, he traveled to Israel on a program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the North Shore. “That experience marked the beginning of carving out my own path to Judaism,” DeGroot said. It also influenced his college choice: He wanted a college with a sizeable, active Jewish community. He chose Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

An athlete, president of a Jewish fraternity and a marketing major, DeGroot also was active in Hillel and Chabad at Vanderbilt. By his junior year, he began feeling pulled in two different directions. “I was on a path heading toward business, but [it] wasn’t resonating [for me],” said DeGroot. “The Hillel and Chabad programs grounded and centered me.”

That same year, a Chabad program changed the direction of his life. Describing a prayer service by Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein and a concert by Matisyahu, he said, “At the concert I felt like I woke up midstride running a race I’d never signed up for. I came out of that weekend with the decision to become a rabbi.”

DeGroot finds his Hebrew College studies challenging. “I’ve always been an experiential learner,” he said. “It’s been wonderful to shift into the mode of formalized learning.”

DeGroot is at URI Hillel once a week to support Jewish students. He is currently working with a student – who grew up in Rhode Island without a Jewish community nearby – to help him attain his goal of becoming a bar mitzvah when he graduates college.  DeGroot recently guided another student through the grieving process when one of her relatives died.

“Nate facilitates meaningful Jewish experiences – informally teaching, inspiring and connecting students to Jewish opportunities,” said Amy Olson, URI Hillel’s executive director.

In Smithfield

In contrast, Jablow’s journey to rabbinical school took a more circuitous route.  Jablow, 53, grew up in Providence. At 18, he knew he wanted to be a rabbi, but that dream was deferred.

“I always wanted to know what rabbis know,” said Jablow. After high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Judaic studies from Hebrew College.  “I ended up working as a Jewish educator and raising a family,” said Jablow. “There was no time for rabbinical school.”

For 20 years, Jablow taught Judaic studies to middle school students at the Alperin Schechter Day School and then its successor, the Jewish Community Day School.  Concurrently, he was an educator for Temple Emanu-El’s b’nei mitzvah program for 10 years and also taught at the Harry Elkin Midrasha Community High School.

When JCDS’ middle school closed, Jablow took a year off to consider his next step. At 50, he applied to rabbinical school.

How does it feel to be back as a full-time student at Hebrew College beginning his second career as a rabbi?

“What I’m doing now is just a different branch on the same tree,” said Jablow. “The whole process excites me!”

Jablow finds his studies at Hebrew College simultaneously demanding and satisfying. He feels fortunate that his wife Barbara and their three children support his decision – especially this year when he is 6,000 miles away studying in Israel.

“The majority of my studies are at the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem with the opportunity to choose classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as well as other institutions and seminaries,” said Jablow.

He still works part time and remotely with students at Bryant through email, FaceTime (Apple’s version of Skype) and, when there are a number of people involved, Google groups. In June, he will resume his position as Bryant’s Jewish chaplain.

“One of our goals at Hillel is to raise the Jewish profile and help Jewish students feel good there,” said Jablow. “I feel very appreciated and supported at Bryant.”

Holding Friday night services, holiday celebrations, social programs and fundraisers are among Jablow’s responsibilities at Bryant.

“Most Hillel programs are held in the beautiful Ronald K. and Kati C. Machtley Interfaith Center … a true symbol … of the commitment of Bryant to presenting opportunities for spiritual participation and growth for the students,” said Jablow.

Both DeGroot and Jablow look forward to being ordained as rabbis at the conclusion of their program of studies. For now, they are focused on learning and gaining experience.

NANCY ABESHAUS is a contributing writer to The Voice & Herald. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

CONTACT HILLEL FOUNDATION at the University of Rhode Island at 874-2740 or urihillel.org.

CONTACT BRYANT UNIVERSITY HILLEL CLUB at 232-6855 or bryant.edu.

 

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