Inspiring Stories in Honor of Hanukkah

In honor of Hanukkah, we are sharing inspiring stories of Hebrew Union College students and alumni who bring light into our world.

Ilana Goldman
Michael Kemerov
Sam Rosen
Madeleine Steckley

Meet Ilana Goldman, fifth-year cantorial student working on her CPE requirement at Bellevue Hospital in New York:

Ilana-Goldman group photo

“I have served as a chaplain counseling patients on surgical, medical, trauma, prison, ICU, and chemical addiction units. I am also assigned to an in-patient psychiatric ward where I run a music and spirituality group. I bring in my guitar, and we sing and talk about the words of the songs. On this unit, I meet with the doctors and nurses as we work to create a comprehensive treatment plan for the patient, understanding that spirituality and religion is a critical part of their stay. The range of patients I provide spiritual counseling for are vast. Half of the patients at Bellevue are battling some sort of addiction. Many are homeless or undocumented. The age range is vast; I have prayed with parents in the NICU while their two day old infant lies in the incubator, I have counseled 18 year olds in the psych ward after recent suicide attempts, and I have seen great-great grandmothers take their last breath surrounded by friends and family. I have also prayed with doctors and nurses before and in the midst of their difficult rounds, providing support to the medical staff. Most of my patients are not Jewish. I find though that religious affiliation is irrelevant. I also meet with their families and counsel them as they have the most difficult conversations about life and death and pray with them for whatever is on their heart as they struggle with the meaning of their suffering. Every patient has an entire story, and a world affected by their illness. It is a true privilege to be part of even just a moment of their journey, to form an I-Thou relationship and to experience God in that meeting.

I am learning through these patient visits, meetings, and education hours, my identity as a chaplain. Between my first unit in 2018 when I finished my third year of cantorial school, and now, 2020 in a pandemic in my fifth year of school, almost an ordained cantor, the growth personally and professionally is tremendous. I am more aware of my own biases, assumptions, and fears that interfere with my ability to guide a patient. I am more confident going deep with the patients on difficult and uncomfortable topics, more self-assured, and have more intuition.

A few weeks ago, I had a geriatric patient in my psych ward who is Jewish. I rarely have a Jewish patient so I already felt a connection. He was catatonic, unable to move, and mute. Every day I would go to visit with him, and even though he couldn’t speak, I would say that I am by his side, and that I see his pain. Gradually, his condition began to improve and he could say little phrases like “I need help, please help me.” One day, I visited him on a Shabbat, and I wished him a Shabbat Shalom. It was a miracle, he said “Shabbat Shalom” with such certainty and pride. Then I started softly singing Goldfarb’s “Shalom Aleichem” and he was singing along with me for a few moments, in Hebrew, he could recall all of the words. Somehow in the depths of his memory, there was the music. A few weeks later as he was being discharged to a rehab facility, I asked him to give me a blessing. He recited the motzi, in Hebrew, with confidence and strength. And it was the greatest blessing I could ever receive, one I will cherish.”

Meet Michael Kemerov, Executive Director of the Religious Union for Progressive Judaism in Minsk, Belarus, and a student in HUC’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.


Michael Kemerov“Jewish community life is so different in the US and Belarus. The communities in the US had the opportunity to develop during the past century. At the same time, the Jewish communities in Belarus experienced physical destruction and spiritual vacuum. Now it is the time for revival of the Jewish community and to develop and strengthen the Jewish it.

At HUC, we learn from books, teachers, and new experiences. I had the opportunity to study Jewish history and the history of the development of the Jewish community, the importance for organizations to clearly identify the mission, vision, and values, and how not to lose their direction while developing the organization. I discovered the world of fundraising as a developed system that is well structured and organized. In my country, such a profession as a fundraiser officially does not exist. There is no institution in my country that gives me an opportunity to study nonprofit management and nothing specifically Jewish-oriented either. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity that the Zschool has given me.

As Executive Director, I am overseeing and organizing the work of the Religious Union for Progressive Judaism’s office in Minsk and managing the activities of the religious congregations in Belarus. There are 12 Jewish Reform congregations in the Union. Now is not an easy time for Belarus. There are three main crises: Covid, the economy, and a very deep political crisis. So, my mission is to support the communities and leaders of the communities in different cities and towns.

One hundred years ago, Eastern Europe was the center of the Jewish life, Jewish thought, tradition, and wisdom. But even by eighty years ago, a lot had changed. There was the physical destruction of the community during the Holocaust followed by a spiritual vacuum. At the same time, American Jewish communities were developing, educating Jewish leaders (Rabbis, Educators, Cantors, Temple administrators), accumulating experience, and creating new material to learn from.

HUC is one of the most respected schools for training future leaders of the Jewish communities. I think that this course of study gives and will continue to give me a completely new perspective on aspects of Jewish life I did not consider yet, and will show new dimensions of the Jewish communal life that I never thought of before. I am honored to serve the Jewish community in my country and help it to be strong.”

Meet fourth-year cantorial student Sam Rosen, intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City:

Sam Rosen

“Being a cantorial student in the DFSSM is akin to being in an immersive language program. Early on, one listens intently to those who are fluent, one learns the rudimentary vocabulary and eventually begins to test out the new language. That is what it is like to be a cantorial student. We enter HUC thinking we know something about the inner-world of the Cantor. It turns out, even these five years are just scratching the surface. We enter the school with an interest, a passion, and usually a background in Jewish music. But the DFSSM is beyond “Jewish music.” It is an institution with a personality, whose personalities continue their commitment to teaching the next generation. As a student of the DFSSM, I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I get to do this work – and, that someone, somewhere wants future cantors to succeed.

At Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), most of my responsibilities revolve around Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning, encompassing both a “Liberal” service and a “Traditional Egalitarian Minyan” — both formats enriched by my studies at the DFSSM of progressive worship styles, traditional nusach, and Torah reading. Mentored by Senior Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Associate Rabbi Yael Rapport, I work closely with Music Director Joyce Rosenzweig, from whom I learn so much to strengthen my music skills and to thoughtfully plan and customize each service to create deep spiritual experiences for the congregants. I also lead shiva minyamin (and in-person funerals before Covid), Havdalah, contribute to teaching Torah, and help tutor Torah/Haftara chanters.

Working at CBST immerses me in a wonderful model of synagogue life, one of thoughtful collaboration among the rabbinical and cantorial team and robust conversations, that I will take with me in my future career.”

Meet Madeleine Steckley, a student in HUC’s DeLeT program and DeLeT Fellow teaching the fifth-grade at Wornick Day School:

Madeleine Steckley

“During the pandemic, the Wornick Day School has moved to a hybrid learning structure with some students on campus learning and some students zooming in from home. My job as a DeLeT Fellow is to observe classroom management, routines, and procedures as well as take on responsibilities in teaching lessons, planning units, and connecting with students. Also, my work at Wornick extends beyond the classroom as I attend weekly professional meetings and participate in staff duties.

The most meaningful part of working with my students is seeing them realize their own potential. Students are under such an immense amount of stress and trauma from this year and I see the anxiety many face when they don’t understand a concept right away. Working with students one on one, motivating them to have a growth mindset, and practicing over and over again is work but the payoff is more than worth it. Seeing the “ah-ha” moment, the light switch turn on, the glint in a student’s eye, is priceless. When a student realizes they can and not they can’t, it shows me that they are capable of achieving amazing things. My students astound me every day with their curiosity, dedication, and kindness. Their potential to leave this world a better place is limitless.

My goals have always been to become a teacher, but I also knew my Jewish identity was something I didn’t want to give up when moving into this profession. My experience has allowed me to integrate Judaism into my learning in all ways. I am pushed to explore education through a Jewish lens and Jewish ideas through an educational lens. I am able to think critically on how Jewish values can play an integral role in my future classroom. My experiences in the classroom have given me the freedom to explore teaching elementary in all facets with purpose and intention.

My studies with HUC’s DeLeT Program have strengthened my knowledge and skills in my work as a teacher immensely. DeLeT is a network of wonderfully smart, creative, talented and supportive individuals that encourage, challenge, and motivate me to be the best teacher every day.”