|Community: one conversation at a time|
|By Susan Youngwood|
|Friday, 16 August 2013 20:29|
|Brown RISD Hillel welcomes new rabbi|
PROVIDENCE – When Rabbi Michelle Dardashti moves to Providence this month for her new job as associate chaplain for the Jewish community at Brown University and rabbi of Brown RISD Hillel, she adds another city to a long list of residences.
Los Angeles, Baltimore, Binghamton (N.Y.), Montevideo (Uruguay), New York City, Jerusalem, Stamford (Conn.) – to name a few.
“My tagline should be “Have Torah, will travel,” she laughed.
As someone who’s moved around a lot, Rabbi Dardashti, 33, understands the importance of building a community. In fact, she views her role as a rabbi as enabling a grassroots effort to build a strong community.
“My background is in community organizing, in identifying and cultivating leaders,” she said. “My job is to make connections for people, in ways authentic and resonant.
“My training as a rabbi included a course I took called congregation-based community organizing,” she explained in a long-distance telephone interview from her home in Stamford, Conn. “That informs the way I think about community building and prayer.”
Rabbi Dardashti believes so strongly in a grassroots approach that she can’t give specifics about what she’ll be doing in her new positions. Activities will emerge only after she has one-on-one and small group discussions, she explained, to learn what people are interested in and passionate about.
“It will bubble up from interests that come to me through conversation,” she said.
Her position as director of community engagement at Temple Beth El in Stamford concluded July 1. In that role, she worked specifically to cultivate those at the fringes of community – potentially those just entering or just exiting – through a grassroots model of engagement, and to engage with individuals spanning the entire generational spectrum.
In Stamford, the rabbi taught a year-long course, Introduction to Judaism, and facilitated the formation of two new and now quite strong interest groups within the shul, a monthly women’s Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) group and a Reyut (friendship) Committee, supporting the needs of homebound elderly, those who are ailing and caregivers to such individuals.
Rabbi Dardashti was ordained and received a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Her undergraduate degree is from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she minored in theater and international studies and created her own major in religion and the law. She spent her junior year in Israel.
Born in Los Angeles but raised in Baltimore, she brings with her a global perspective. During her senior year in high school (which she completed in Baltimore), the rest of her family relocated to Westchester so that her father, of Iranian descent, could serve as cantor at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, N.Y. He retired from that position two years ago. Her mother is an American folk singer of eastern European descent; the rabbi’s husband, Nathan Sher, is Australian.
After college, she lived first in Uruguay, teaching at a Jewish day school, running Hillel programs and writing for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency; she then moved to Israel, initially on a Dorot Fellowship and later, working for the Nesiya Institute.
Rabbi Dardashti is particularly excited about the university community she has joined.
“[T]hese really incredible … intellectually rigorous, open-minded, really interesting and passionate, aspirational students at Brown are your congregants. This is the community you’re ‘rabbiing’ to. What an opportunity to be in their lives,” she said.
Describing college as a four-year “journey about learning and growth,” she said her position gives her an “opportunity to make Judaism a part of that. To inspire them to make Judaism part of their growth … My job is to effectively make Judaism a part of the lives of more Jews and more positively … viewed by people who are not Jewish.”
And she is a living role model for that philosophy. “I’m living and breathing Judaism all the time,” she said.
But the young rabbi views Judaism as much more than attending religious services at Hillel.
“I very much think my job is not about Hillel, it’s about Judaism,” said Rabbi Dardashti. “I want to get more students involved in Judaism. It’s more than just getting kids in the building. It’s about how many kids are we turning onto Judaism. … If I’m inspiring them to volunteer someplace,” she explained, students must “see that as part of their Jewish mandate. If I’m helping them to see that as part of their Judaism, I see that as a huge success.”
The family will rent a home near the Alliance JCC Early Childhood Center, which daughters, Eden, 3½, and Miya, 1, will attend.
Expect to see her in the community – she plans on spending as little time as possible in her office.
“Communication doesn’t happen through newsletters,” she said, but “sitting face to face, having luncheons. That’s really my mandate – meeting people and asking people what is exciting about Judaism and about life. … In what way has Judaism spoken to you? That’s my job, to ask those questions, one person at a time.”
Brown RISD Hillel: 863-2805 or brownrisdhillel.org.