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Campus News

Jewish Life at Warren Wilson College

by Dave Grace, guest writer

There has been much recent discussion on campus, regarding Spiritual Life. On Wednesday, 7 September, a community meeting was held to introduce an interfaith service year commitment, consider the issue of religious tolerance, and to provide an overview of the Spiritual Life office’s planned activities. The way I see it, this discussion could promote a more thoughtful consideration of all that is termed spiritual or religious on campus.

There are certainly many different perspectives on campus even within adherents to a particular worldview, religion, or spiritual practice. These differences can be made known, explained and discussed. Perhaps this could lead to a new appreciation of overlooked ideas or the discovery of new ones; A deeper bond with your friends, work crew, between professors or students, faculty or staff. There may be something to be recovered from the cultural and religious traditions of your social formation: something lurking or bruised in that succession of first-hand experience, story telling, written history, and institutional ritual. Whatever it is, I hope we will learn more about ourselves and have more fulfilling relationships with each other.

This is the first of a series of interviews with the religious groups on campus. Drew Handverger (student) and Rabbi Rob Cabelli of Beth Israel describe their personal experience, belief and tradition. Both are active in Jewish Life on campus.

-Dave Grace, Spirituality and Social Justice Crew

SL: How long have you been involved with Jewish Life on Campus and in what ways?

Drew: I Got here fall of 09’ and I attended some Jewish events (high holidays etc).

Then Spring 10’ I found out that there was no student leader and there always used to be. I had just come back from Israel with a new perspective on some things— I decided to do it. Since it was my first year, I was mainly helping Beth Eckstein with planning and advertisements and not really creating ideas.

But, in Fall of 10’ I joined the Spirituality and Social Justice Crew and had just attended Hillel workshops with the intention to pump up Jewish Life on Campus. That semester, there was record high attendance for events and high birth rite applicants. This is also when I started Kehila (Community) from what was the JSO (Jewish Student Organization).

Spring 10’ Kehila started meeting weekly and discussing the organization of Jewish Life. From our discussions, we decided to change the organization of the Passover Seder because lots of Jewish students felt like we were putting it on for non-Jewish students to learn about, but we wanted to make it our own—so we could learn more about our tradition. We wanted more authenticity and spiritual meaning from the religious holidays, to develop the deeper meaning of the tradition— to feel it.

We were lacking ordained people from the Jewish tradition. We are going for that this year.

SL: I think your life history connects with some popular interests at Warren Wilson, with your natural science and religion background. Do you want to share a story that relates to your studies?

Rabbi R.C.: My father was a working scientist, a biologist, and very much a rationalist. While born of Jewish parents, he grew up in a completely non-observant environment and really only began to explore and learn about Judaism while in his 40s, while I was a kid in grade school and middle school. The example he provided me was one of inquiry and critical thinking, and, most importantly, the idea that there need be no real conflict between spirituality and even religiosity and scientific reasoning and approaches to the world. As I grew up, I harbored no idea that religion and science were necessarily antagonists at all. I understood that one could be agnostic, even an atheist, and a rationalist and yet find much value, meaning, and nurture in religious observance and spiritual practice. Of course, I still had to reach those same conclusions again for myself independently as an adult. Naturally, I found much that was abhorrent in institutionalized religion, just as in most other human institutions. And I found much spirituality in simply feeling, if not being, at one with nature, in natural settings, allowing my sense of awe, both emotional and based on scientific knowledge, to emerge. So part of my journey was one of acceptance of multiple ways of receiving the world and of multiple ways of connecting to the idea of being part of something much larger than oneself. One very important aspect of my path from being a working scientist and teacher to being a rabbi was coming to grips with the realization that both science and religion in their pure essence embrace uncertainty and the unknown. My path involved relinquishing the idea that I must reconcile feelings and “rational” thoughts, and admitting that all these realms of my life ought to revolve around modest acknowledgment of what we don’t know and may never know, rather than some mock competition over who owns “Truth.” Everything is relational.

SL: Drew told me that rest is the necessary center of the triad of Warren Wilson College. Could you elaborate on the significance of Shabbat and the intention of Sabbath?

Rabbi R.C.: The essence of Shabbat is probably best captured in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s short work, “The Sabbath,” to the extent that any one work can represent such a manifold concept. Rest and wholeness is central to our lives. Without rest our lives are a constant blur, devoid of the ability to self-reflect. Instead of living within relational space, we lapse into ego, driven by the feeling that if we stop we will fall behind. Inevitably, the world-view that emerges, without intentioned resting from our labors, is that our lives are nothing more than competition with each other for limited resources.

Basically, the intention of Shabbat is to say that we must not lead lives of unabated strife, of insecurity and fear translated into competitive rivalry. Shabbat proclaims that we must create a “sanctuary in time” in which we live our lives with the secure knowledge that we live together as community for each other – that our purpose is to cultivate joy and self-fulfillment and self-expression in each other. One way of fostering this, of creating that sanctuary, is to establish a community in which everyone ceases from their labors, taking the time instead to nurture relationships and practice simple living in gratitude, being present with each other and the world. The outcome of this behavioral modification program is to internalize appreciation that we are all of infinite potential and value, all of us children in a world of wonder. We exist to serve each other, to prosper in learning about our world and learning to live in peace and harmony with it, and to spread the fruits of our labors to all.

SL: Environmental Studies is a popular major. Where do you see connections with Judaism?

Rabbi R.C.: I tell folks that Judaism is an earth religion, and I truly believe this to be so. Unfortunately, two thousand years of living increasingly urbanized lives have largely eroded the self-awareness within Judaism of this fundamental feature of its origins and beliefs. The genesis of Judaism took place within the transition from semi-nomadic tribesmen to farmers – or so at least we tell ourselves. Environmental sustainability and the formation of a civil society in which all would be encouraged to prosper were and are the key underpinnings of both biblical and modern Jewish life. Given food and shelter as the basic necessities of life, and the Jewish moral religious view that they are a gift from God and that human beings must act as the ethical distribution system of this gift, seeing the natural world in terms of harmony and sustainability is obligatory as a core moral and theological principle. The Jewish calendar is oriented around the cycles of the seasons as well as the lunar cycle. The holidays are oriented around the changes during the course of the growing season, from a farmer’s perspective. And the metaphor that human beings are like trees permeates all of Jewish lore and story. The connections between Judaism and Environmental Studies are profound because, on many levels, Judaism is simply a spiritually and ethically driven environmental movement, whose ways of eating, as an example, are a program of conscious eating, whose foundation is the sanctity of life.

SL: Where are things going this year with Jewish Life?


  1. More celebratory, fun events. Ex. Shaffer party bar mitzvah and Israel folk dancing
  2. Consistent religious study meetings
  3. Sunday brunch with Rabbi and Torah Study OR
  4. Sunday brunch and Jewish meditation
  5. More fun, meaning, food, and music in holidays and Shabbats


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