Jewish life on a Jesuit campus? It’s not a contradiction in terms. Just ask Ilana Schachter, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.
The Manhattan native, who will be ordained May 13 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, has been responsible for building and growing a Jewish presence at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) ever since she was hired there as Hillel Rabbi/Coordinator of Jewish Student Services in October 2010. The part-time position will be expanded to full time beginning June 1.
LMU is a Catholic university in West Los Angeles that was founded in 1911 and has nearly 6,000 undergraduate students. Of those, approximately 350 are Jewish.
“I basically spent the first year just having one-on-ones with Jewish students, trying to build the community one student at a time,” said Schachter, 28.
Circumstances make her duties a bit unusual. For one, Hillel is considered an LMU student club instead of an independent center for Jewish life, making Schachter the group’s advisor. In addition, she acts as the campus rabbi, a resource to the rest of the campus community, and a sounding board for prospective Jewish students.
While some are attracted by the school’s strong academics, small size, and beautiful campus, they often come to her with reservations: Is Mass a requirement? (No, although it is part of certain campus events.) Is there mandatory Catholic coursework? (No. The theology requirement can be met by studying any number of religions.)
And even though the Jesuit mission is central to the university, Schachter said it has much in common with her own faith tradition. Consider, she said, that LMU’s mission focuses on shared values: the encouragement of learning, the education of the whole person, and the service of faith and promotion of justice.
“These values of the mission are fully aligned with my Jewish mission,”she said. “When I talk about this mission, I usually compare it to Al shlosha d’varim:on three things the world stands: on learning, Torah, and service and the promotion of justice.”
During her time at the university, Schachter has organized a number of large-scale activities, both to energize the university’s Jewish population and engage with the rest of the campus community. Each semester Hillel hosts a large educational Shabbat dinner, and there are Hanukkah and Purim parties too.
For the High Holy Days, she introduced a service and dinner on the night of Rosh Hashanah and a pre-fast meal for Yom Kippur. Shuttles transported students to local synagogues for the rest of the services.
Perhaps most satisfying, though, was this year’s Simhat Torah service that used two Torah scrolls owned by the university. They had been used previously for educational purposes but not religious ones.
“For the first time ever we took out the Sifrei Torah and I read from the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis,”Schachter said. “The room was packed. All these people were there dancing and singing Aneinu. It was really awesome.”
Dr. Lane Bove, LMU’s Senior Vice President for Student Affairs, attended the event and was blown away. She said the university would like to build on its history of connecting to the Jewish community in Los Angeles, increasing Jewish enrollment until there is a critical mass.
“I feel very strongly that having an understanding of diversity, whether it’s religious, ethnic, geographic, or cultural makes us all better people,”she said.
Bove said that Schachter, a graduate of Brown University, has been a perfect fit for collegiate life.
“She has great positive energy. She’s very smart. She’s willing to engage in the conversation,”Bove said. “We’re very pleased that she’s here.”
Schachter brings other expertise to the position as well. Prior to enrolling in HUC-JIR, she aspired to become a sommelier, taking a formal course and working in one of Mario Batali’s wine stores. That raises the question of whether she replaces Manischewitz with something a little fancier at her campus-wide Shabbat events?
“Only my own personal Shabbat dinners,”she said. “We’re still on a pretty tight budget.”