Starting a new job during a pandemic isn’t easy, especially if your goal is to bring people together. By being creative, Paul Entis 92C and Rabbi Jordan Braunig are off to a running start, each contributing substantially to Jewish life at Emory.
A religion and Judaic studies major while a student at Emory, Entis chose the university partly because of its Jewish community. “Emory signaled to students like me,” Entis says, “that there is not one right way of being Jewish; there is a breadth of possibility.”
He has returned to take the newly created position of executive director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies (TIJS), where he oversees operations, supports faculty and increases the institute’s public profile.
Eric Goldstein 92C, the Judith London Evans Director of TIJS as well as associate professor of history and Jewish studies, created the position. In 2006, Goldstein curated a Rose Library exhibit titled “Jews at Emory: Faces of a Changing University.”
Taking a long view of Jewish life at Emory, Goldstein observes that “although there have been difficult moments for Jews at times in Emory’s history, especially with regard to actions in the Dental School, on the whole, especially in Emory College, there has been an enduring tradition of being welcoming to Jewish students.”
For his part, Braunig arrived in September 2020 as part of a new multifaith team in the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL) that now includes Buddhist and Hindu chaplains. This summer, OSRL welcomed Maddie Henderson as a chaplain for Christian life and expects to appoint a Muslim chaplain soon. The chaplains are resources for faculty, staff, students and alumni to both practice and explore the diverse religious traditions on campus.
“It is a blessing that we have multiple communities and resources for Jewish faculty, staff and students. Paul and Rabbi Jordan’s work will enhance the existing strengths of Jewish life at Emory,” says the Rev. Gregory W. McGonigle, university chaplain and dean of spiritual and religious life.
Building community in new ways
OSRL data suggests that there are many Jewish students at Emory who do not belong to established Jewish organizations. In light of that, Braunig hopes to collaboratively develop broader opportunities for Jewish students to explore their Jewish identities in their own ways.
“One reason the students, faculty and staff who interviewed Rabbi Jordan were so excited about him is his ability to reach out to the Jewish student who may not yet be connected,” says McGonigle.
At Tufts University, Braunig established an innovative model of community building — a fellows program that enlivened Jewish life by helping students explore their identities together in conversation. For now, Braunig is exploring what may make sense here by listening carefully.
“The capacity to grow community is only there when you have relationships with people,” says Braunig.
He is, by design, a nearly permanent fixture on the patio at Kaldi’s Coffee. He says he will walk virtually anywhere with anyone. His “office” is wherever students are.
Jesse Steinman 21C, who served as co-president of Emory Hillel, describes himself as being “over the moon” about Braunig’s arrival. He was impressed by “how good a listener he is, how much he showed that he values our backgrounds and our stories.”
Braunig offered to be Steinman’s chavruta, a Hebrew word for study partner. For an hour every week, they discussed different Jewish texts. “What makes these relationships most meaningful is their regularity, figuring out how to study with another person,” says Steinman.
Braunig says he has toyed with setting up a booth with a sign: “Free listening with Rabbi Jordan.” Or a mobile spiritual library that he can bike across campus. “My vision of rabbinic work is to encounter people with curiosity and care,” he notes.
During the high holidays last year, Braunig took a meditative walk with students through the Lullwater Preserve. “I was impressed with the students’ ability to be open-hearted and vulnerable. We hoped the time is coming when we can lower not just our masks but our guard too,” says Braunig.
As the OSRL continues its current strategic planning process, Braunig and McGonigle co-chair a Jewish life working group that brings together university administrators; leaders from Hillel, Chabad and MEOR; faculty; staff, including Entis; and a deliberately large group of students.
“The working group is an important space to have particular conversations about what it is like to be Jewish at Emory and how we can build on the strengths and experiences of students, faculty and staff,” says McGonigle. “We want to make full use of what we can learn.”
Carol Henderson — Emory’s chief diversity officer, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, and adviser to the president — sees important connections to the larger work of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI). “It has been wonderful partnering with the OSRL, TIJS and others as we connect the important work of the Jewish life working group to our overall strategic vision of diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Henderson.
“Students, faculty and staff need to be able to bring their whole selves to Emory — their traditions, faiths, beliefs and philosophies,” she adds. “ODEI’s involvement takes into consideration these multiple and intersectional individualities that comprise Jewish life and identity at Emory.”
Making the world (and Emory) more whole
On April 8, Braunig helped orchestrate an online vigil for Holocaust Remembrance Day, known as Yom HaShoah. A first-time event for Emory, it featured President Gregory L. Fenves, Braunig and four students with connections to the Holocaust.
“What the Holocaust means to me is what can happen when an individual, and then a society, and then a government hates and institutionalizes hate. The Jews have been the victims of hate through the millennia, but the Holocaust was a singular event,” Fenves said during the vigil. “To remember the six million Jews who perished, we also have to remember what led to that and work every day to make sure that never happens again.”
Braunig appreciates all that Fenves has done to advance racial and social justice and has seen firsthand how it motivates students.
“What is most compelling to our students is the idea of making the world more whole. It is not an accident that so many Jewish students end up at Emory. The university has that deep engagement with service and social justice as part of its mission,” he says.
Braunig was the coordinator of this year’s multifaith Baccalaureate service, which Enku Gelaye, senior vice president and dean for Campus Life, called “a model of inclusion.” As she thinks about the work of the new chaplains, she stresses “how important it is for us to create supportive environments for our students, collaboratively and proactively.”
In the coming academic year, Braunig hopes to offer innovative ways of celebrating the Jewish holidays and create cohorts of Jewish leaders who want to develop their skills as community builders.
But his largest goal “is to be a public Jewish presence on campus. Some of the most important questions I will be asking are, ‘How is your grandmother? I know that she was sick,’ and ‘How did your test go?’ I am, along with my fellow chaplains, a field guide along the path our students are taking through higher education.”
Another coffee-drinking community builder
Like Braunig, Entis believes in the power of coffee to bring people together. Or pizza. He also plans to sit in on classes at TIJS now that they are back in-person.
“At my core, I am a relationship builder. I can build relationships between programs and relationships between our students. I am reaching out to our alumni and institutions in Atlanta,” says Entis.
Founded in 1999 for the interdisciplinary exploration of Jewish civilization and culture, TIJS is the largest Jewish studies program in the southern United States. “Jewish studies is at the nexus of why interdisciplinarity matters: it spans literature, language, culture, politics, history and religion,” notes Entis.
Its founding director, Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, was recently nominated by the Biden administration to be the U.S. special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism.
Lipstadt teaches in TIJS alongside nearly 20 other faculty, and Entis has promised that “there will be no hidden gems among our faculty. They are thinking about things in new ways and deserve a wide audience.”
Many TIJS students are not Jewish, “and the conversations are more lively because of it,” suggests Entis. “Even within the Jewish world, there are many different experiences. We have to work harder to make all students feel welcome.”
A native of Ukraine, Anastasiia Strakhova is a history PhD student studying Jewish migration from the late Russian empire. What she wanted in a program, professors Eric Goldstein and Ellie Schainker of TIJS offered with their respective expertise in American and Russian Jewish history.
Strakhova also appreciates the financial support she has had to conduct research around the world, including learning Yiddish in Tel Aviv and doing archival research in her home country as well as Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Israel. She began her travels in 2018 and notes, “In my case, I strongly felt my advisers’ support from afar even before the virus struck, and that has only continued.”
Beyond undergraduate and graduate courses — and some of the undergraduate courses meet Emory’s new race and ethnicity requirement — the institute is also a lively center for public scholarship. In a virtual format this year, its Tenenbaum Family Lecture Series attracted more than 600 people from around the world.
Goldstein recognized that “with a staff leader, we could do more. Paul is engaging groups like alumni. He is also working with undergraduates in a more meaningful way outside the classroom. We already have seen a tremendous return on investment.”
Beyond Entis participating in Braunig’s Jewish life working group, the two have started conversations about how to develop more programming around antisemitism, recognizing that this is best done in allyship with other marginalized communities. What, for instance, are the similarities and differences between Islamophobia and antisemitism?
“We have to think about how prejudice and discrimination are addressed day to day, the full spectrum of the ways they show up. That is everyone’s work, on our campuses and off,” says McGonigle.
There is more to do now that plans and people are unpacked. Says Braunig, “Paul and I are becoming friends in no small part because we arrived at the same great place at the same strange time.
“It’s a joy to be learning and engaging alongside one another.”