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Contact Information:

rshapirorieser@smith.edu (413) 774-5796

Rhonda has certainly helped foster the heightened feeling of Jewish kinship within the greater Smith community. Additionally, she works hard with the other 5 College Jewish Advisors to create 5-College-wide Jewish events for students.

-Alli Wessells, '14

Rabbi Rhonda serves up brownies to a very excited Lily Ritter '15.

Can you offer a more comprehensive definition of Judaism for curious students?

Definitions are difficult where Judaism is concerned. A definition is by nature static. Judaism is and has always been roiling with dynamic energy. At root is the belief in the Creator and the Creator's oneness. But even defining that becomes difficult. The Hebrew, Adonai echad, can mean that God is unique, or that God is one. And as the mystics tell us, if God is one, there cannot be two. The Hasidic masters tell us, Everything is God. Our separateness from God and each other is an illusion.

Judaism is dynamic because Torah is dynamic. Torah does not mean law, but teaching. Each generation learns, receives, and gives to the great Torah, the great Teaching of Judaism. And yet, Judaism is more than a faith. Judaism is a peoplehood. One's membership does not depend on belief alone. One can be an atheist and still be considered a Jew. From my perspective, however, the faith aspects of Judaism enliven ones life, deepen ones connection to the world and help us when we are caught in the mystery of our suffering.

TuBShevat planting
Rhonda oversees Tu B'Shevat pot decorating for pea plants

Judaism is also a religion of doing. A basic principle of Jewish practice is Tikkun Olam, the repair of a broken world. One is commanded not just to pray to relieve suffering, but to go out and ease suffering. Gimilut Hasadim, acts of loving-kindness is one of the three pillars on which Judaism stands. Torah tells us Tzedek Tzedek terdof. "Justice, Justice shall you pursue." Yet the Talmud tells us, "yours is not to complete the task, but neither can you desist from beginning it." We are called to do what we can to repair the world even if we don't see an end to the work. This is the ultimate act of faith for any individual.

Judaism is a path, a way. We grow and change as we pursue this path. We learn and teach and pray. It is not a path of goals and answers, but of journey and holy questions. The rabbis tell us of the Torah, "Turn it over and over for everything is in it." Everything is in Torah because in each generation we bring ourselves into relationship with it. The answers are not important. The relationship is.

What role do you play within your faith? What kind of guidance can you offer students?

On the simple level, I am a rabbi and I engage in activities that a rabbi would do. But I have been part of the Jewish community for years. For much of my life my participation has really been that of a layperson with a bit of knowledge. Much of my early knowledge was pursued individually without connection to an institution. I learned the liturgy because I loved to hear the rhythms and melodies of prayer. I learned Biblical Hebrew by spending time with the weekly portion of the Torah and a large dictionary.

I have journeyed through almost all of the movements/ denominations of Judaism, spending time in the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, going to an Orthodox yeshiva, and my ordination in the Jewish Renewal movement. What this tells me is that one makes Judaism ones own. And one's own Judaism, when it comes from the heart, is authentic. Look outside yourself for education and information. But not for your own authenticity. Look inside yourself for who you are as a Jew and what in Judaism you find meaningful. It is there, waiting for you.

How long have you been involved with the Smith College Community? How has the College's spirituality changed over time?

I am in my fourth year as the Jewish student adviser. This is a rather short time to make an assessment where spiritual communities are concerned. I am, however, sensing an energy of spiritual renewal on campus: more attendance, more questions and curiosity. There is a deep spiritual spring at Smith College. Students know it is there for them. The Vigils that happen on campus are evidence of that.

What role do you think spirituality plays on campus?

I think Smith students are deeply spiritual. As a Jew, I see the passionate pursuit of study as a spiritual activity. The work of justice is a spiritual activity. The work of inclusion is a deeply spiritual activity. It is the work we do to repair God's world.

What have you learned from your time at Smith College?

I have learned that Smith students are challenging, imaginative, open to new ideas, powerfully connected to their spiritual search however they define it, and a great deal of fun.

Rhonda leads a blessing for baked bread