Student Spotlight: Andrew Mandel (he/him)
Fourth-Year Rabbinical Student, HUC/New York
Please tell us about your Jewish journey.
I am the product of eight great-grandparents who each immigrated to America, so my Jewish journey owes a debt to their daring decision to escape bigotry, violence, and lack of opportunity in Eastern Europe. My parents moved from New York City to the suburbs of Rockland County right before I was born. My family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, where I became a bar mitzvah and eventually became an assistant teacher in our Hebrew school. But it was in public school where I read my first child’s biography of Dr. King, where I was both frightened by the signs that said “no Blacks, Jews and dogs allowed” and buoyed by pictures of the march from Selma to Montgomery. It left an indelible impression that Judaism meant standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others against oppression. I can draw a straight line between those early experiences and my decision to move to the Texas-Mexico border and teach 7th grade English after college. When I returned to New York, I was ultimately drawn to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah because of the congregation’s explicit interweaving of civil rights work and Jewish practice. I got to do this myself a bit professionally because, as a piece of my work managing the leadership development work at Teach For America, I designed and led a trip each summer for 40 of our teachers to travel to Israel to explore issues of equity, values, and leadership. But things truly came full circle when my father asked me to start leading my family’s Passover seder. I knew I had made it then!
Please tell us about your journey to HUC.
Working at Teach For America through my 20s and 30s, as well as running a multi-faith volunteer community organizing and advocacy effort in my hometown addressing educational inequity, I increasingly felt two impulses: that the sustainability of social change work requires spiritual nourishment, and that every person involved in multi-racial coalitions must ask themselves where they are best positioned to influence social change. I came to believe that maybe I had a unique opportunity to help mobilize the Jewish community. I had a fateful conversation with a friend where I described wanting to spend the next leg of my career singing and praying, learning and teaching, advocating and organizing, “kind of like a rabbi,” I said. She said, “Why not an actual rabbi?” I thought that was ridiculous; I didn’t feel qualified, to which she responded, “Isn’t that what school is for?” But was I really going to quit my job, learn Hebrew seriously at age 40, start over professionally, not to mention take on the mantle of rabbinic leadership? The potential doubts that emerged dissipated when I decided just to check out a rabbinical school open house — which happened to fall on the day after the 2016 election. It was powerful to have that moment of clarity into the brokenness of our country to put things in perspective. I decided to take the leap.
Please tell us about the Be Wise Tzedek Box Challenge. What inspired you to start this project? How can people participate?
The mission of Tzedek Box is to support Jews and our allies in the ancient pursuit of a more just society. A Tzedek Box is like a Tzedekah Box, but instead of coins, we put in journal entries. Every time you engage in an act of justice, write it down on a slip of paper, along with what you are feeling and learning, and put it in your Tzedek Box. Once a year, on Yom HaTzedek, we open our boxes as a way to reflect on the extent to which we have lived out our commitment to righteousness and to rededicate ourselves to a world of dignity for all people. It becomes a form of sacred accountability, and it allows us to express ourselves as “shomer tzedek,” a guardian of justice. Thanks to HUC and the Be Wise Entrepreneurial Fellowship, I was able to hire folks to create an iPhone and an Android app that aggregates the various action opportunities of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, so our users can get ideas on how they can act toward tzedek themselves There’s also a feature called “tribes,” where users in the same family, synagogue, school, network or city can spread the word about local actions they can take together. People can participate by visiting our website and downloading our app, pledging to take the Tzedek Box Challenge, and joining our Facebook page, where you can also learn about our monthly Tzedek Havdalah events.
What do you love most about being a rabbinical student at HUC?
I’ve had the chance to build some great relationships at HUC with both classmates and faculty, and I love the extent to which we are balancing academics and practical experience. Whether it’s the Be Wise fellowship, or pastoral care, service-leading with cantors, or my various internships at Union Temple, Temple Sinai of Newington, and now Central Synagogue, there are lots of ways to apply my learning. Of course, we will have plenty of time to do the work of a rabbi once we graduate, but it is great to have the community and the academic back-and-forth while we do so.
Why did you choose HUC’s rabbinical program?
As a product of the Conservative movement, I had my biases about Reform Judaism and therefore HUC. Yet role models and mentors like Rabbi Rachel Timoner ’09 and Rabbi Stephanie Kolin ’06 of Congregation Beth Elohim, Rabbi Felicia Sol ’96, ’99 of B’nai Jeshurun, and Rabbi Yael Rooks Rapport ’14, ’15 of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah — all alumnae of HUC — each highlighted for me how the experience shaped them, as well as how they were able to shape their own experiences. The ability to be self-directed was important to me, and I have found that to be the case in reality. In addition to core courses I would have (mostly!) chosen anyway, I have been able to take a lot of electives and pursue extracurricular opportunities that speak to my specific interests. Stepping into the chapel at HUC/NY — and experiencing the amazing musical worship — didn’t hurt either.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I am blessed because I love to cook while my partner loves to clean. So, you can find us hosting friends and family on the weekends, sometimes in our building’s backyard. I also love to be outside, either walking, running, or biking, and I just discovered that I can ride a Citibike from my home in Long Island City to the Bronx and then to Manhattan through Randall’s Island. Recently, I have begun a major family genealogy project with my father, which has taken us to New York City Archives and multiple cemeteries. I have organized some Zoom family reunions coming up, though “reunion” may not quite to be the right word since we have never before met some of the people we have uncovered! I actually think that the spiritual dimensions of genealogy ought to take its place next to prayer, study, compassion, and justice work in Jewish practice, so I may spend some free time finding others with whom to tease that out!