Rabbi Joshua Bolton: Growing Jewish life through Hillel

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Rabbi Joshua Bolton, executive director of Brown RISD Hillel, oversees the vital connection between students and Judaism on the campuses of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Brown and RISD students are an active part of the East Side and College Hill neighborhoods of Providence. Hillel is housed in the Glenn and Darcy Weiner Center on Brown Street in Providence.

“Jewish growth is our focus,” Rabbi Bolton said in a recent interview in his office. “Enabling students to grow as Jews over their four years of college is important. We assume they are growing in other areas. We want to make sure folks understand that. There has never really been a better time to be a Jewish college student.”

Here are Rabbi Bolton’s comments during his conversation with Jewish Rhode Island:

On his background

I came of age as a professional in Hillel. I had a number of internships as a rabbinical student in small Hillels in the Philadelphia area. I started at Penn [the University of Pennsylvania] as a rabbi and educator. I was like the Pied Piper at Penn. I was outside of the building, creating relationships with Jewish students. I was prompted to be as far from the institutional structure as possible, getting to know students. I was challenging students to grow Jewishly. I ran an engagement project there called the Jewish Renaissance Project.

My background is very reflective of the American Jewish moment in all its diversity and complexity. I’m from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and I had friends of all sorts. I’m culturally diverse – Jewish and American. My influences were art and punk rock music.

I was always drawn to the Jewish spiritual tradition. I had a few formative experiences in Israel. I took on practices and I abandoned practices. I studied poetry in graduate school. I went to rabbinical school as a pragmatic decision; I needed a job.

My Jewish journey remains dynamic. I’ve collected many sources of influence and inspiration from the American context and from the Israeli context. I represent a rich mix of all these elements.

On his work with Hillel

After 10 years of working for Hillel, if people ask me what type of rabbi I am, I say I’m a Hillel rabbi. In college, there’s so much discovery, that’s the type of Judaism that speaks to me. I’m much more a Jew of questions than a Jew of answers.

It’s a privilege to do this work on campus. I’m inspired by students. Being someone who is inspired by good questions rather than good answers, on campus I’m assured of 360 good questions each year brought to us by students.

On social media

I started to write for the internet [at Penn]. I realized it wasn’t enough to meet students face to face. I began to experiment with broadcasting my work, broadcasting Torah [via blog and Facebook]. I began to tell the story of my inner Jewish journey, and I got responses to that. It became a way to invite others to share their own growth. Then I realized I had a book’s worth of material.

I meet a lot of students here who say, ‘We haven’t met, but we are friends on Facebook.’

On Brown RISD Hillel

We have a lot of spiritual leadership at Brown RISD Hillel. It’s collaborative. Each rabbi has his or her projects. As a team, we are collaborating to map out a vision for spiritual life and the role that Hillel is going to play for students and the entire College Hill community. We meet to think about the potential for Hillel.

I feel like I’m holding some of that vision, and some of that vision is going to be articulated collaboratively by students and staff. We want Hillel to grow its capacity to engage every Jewish student on campus. We want Hillel’s brand to be increasingly inspirational and compelling on campus, and for students to see Hillel as a desirable platform for their creativity and innovation and a really cool place to hang out and have fun. Hillel is really there in many places.

On dealing with tough issues on campus

It’s not easy. We are staying focused on Jewish students and their growth. Hillel has demonstrated its capacity to be a place where no question is off limits, where tough conversations are welcomed on all subjects. We presume tough conversations are sources of growth and clarity. We are ensuring that Hillel is a place where students stay engaged in learning across differences, and Hillel is going to be an advocate for the values of dialogue and engagement.

Hillel is an organization that is interested in the American Jewish experience and the global Jewish experience. Israel is the center of global Jewry and has tremendous significance to us. We are going to create opportunities for students to connect positively and critically with the unfolding story of the state of Israel, the people of Israel and the land of Israel. That’s a value of ours.

Brown RISD Hillel by the numbers

We think there are about 1,200-1,300 Jews [who are students] on College Hill. We reached over 800 this year. We’ve connected with over 70%. Over 20% engage six or more times or engaged in an immersive experience. Our goal is 70% depth and 30% breadth. So we’ve reached our depth targets.

In a time of constriction and challenges, Hillel has demonstrated a capacity of vitality, innovation and impact. The story is about Jewish vitality and innovation. As I said before, there really has never been a better time to be a Jewish student on campus. There is an entire staff to welcome, connect, inspire and support Jewish students. We have a talented staff and a powerful mission.

I’m not interested in students remaining static. I’m interested in growing Jewish life. Growing as a Jew. Asking Jewish questions they haven’t asked before. Making Jewish discoveries and Jewish innovation that hasn’t been done before. Hillel is there to support.

Questions we ask all Upfront interviewees

Cat or dog? Cats, definitely cats. I’ve always had many cats. I’m down to two, but I’ve always had three.

Kugel or knish? Kugel. A good Yerushalmi [Kosher Jerusalem] kugel. Any day. Breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Three people you would invite to dinner? Rebbe Nachman, Franz Kafka and Else Lasker-Schuler [German Jewish poet and playwright]. These are people who have had poetic and spiritual influences in my life. I think they’d make great dinner companions.

FRAN OSTENDORF is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.