Off the Cuff: Megan Doherty, New Jewish Campus Life Affiliate


Megan Doherty, Jewish Campus Life Affiliate

Louis Krauss, News Editor

Rabbi Megan Doherty is beginning her first semester as Oberlin’s Jewish Campus Life Affiliate. The position involves reaching out to Jewish students to help them connect with the Jewish community, as well as making sure the community is welcoming to all. Doherty spent four years (2010–2014) as the senior Jewish fellow and associate rabbi at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, and has most recently spent two years as a rabbi in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. Doherty graduated from Evergreen State College in 1998, and then from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, in 2007, before spending three years in Tel Aviv as a teacher.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So what made you want to come to Oberlin and pick up this Jewish Life Affiliate role?

I really love working on campus with students and being part of their development over these four years. I went to a liberal arts college, and I really value what they stand for. I think Jewish life and asking the questions that Judaism asks — and helping people who are coming into themselves as adults figure out how they’ll become Jewish adults — is really important, and I love helping with that.

Prior to Oberlin you were a rabbi at Yale Hillel, which is quite different from Oberlin.

The way I figure it out is, I went to Evergreen State College as an undergrad for four years and then went to Yale for four years, so I think somewhere in the combination of those two cultures — Oberlin — is a great place to meet.

What made you want to be a rabbi during college?

I didn’t know I wanted to be a rabbi until after college, but the story is basically that being a rabbi was the thing I could do that would let me be a teacher, a learner, an activist, a counselor — all these things, while still being holistically Jewish at the same time. For me, Judaism is the toolbox I have inherited with which I get to make meaning of the world and of my life, and the tools are pretty shiny and really great, and I want to help other people know what the toolbox is like and to make meaning in their lives.

When you came to Oberlin, what kind of things did you want to change or emphasize?

I’m really interested in joyful Jewish community. I want to find ways to bring people together around moments of joy, celebration or learning in a positive way that can contribute to their lives. My sense is that last year there were a lot of crises in different ways, and I think in order to build a community able to survive these crises, one of the ways to do that is have equal amount of gathering and celebration.

There was a lot of national attention at Oberlin last year concerning Professor Joy Karega, who made posts that many people considered antiSemitic, and was placed on academic leave. What was your reaction to that and was it before you knew you were coming to Oberlin?

It was definitely before I took the job; it was all while I was interviewing. The work I really want to be doing is creating spaces for students to grow, figure out who they are and take ownership — all those sorts of things. Most of the time, national attention doesn’t help with that. There are times it can be useful, but usually not. I think there are really interesting questions to be asked about the ways anti-Semitism does and does not map onto how other oppressions manifest in America these days. I think these conversations happen best at a lower pitch. So when everyone is really angry about it and is made to feel lesser, it’s much harder to have productive conversations. My reaction to what I’ve heard about all of that is, I want to build relationships with people in communities who might have different ways of thinking than [I do] and to explore what questions there are on campus.

What are your ideas to bring that pitch down to help make discussions more productive on campus?

Last year I was in a fellowship called Resetting the Table. Their mission is to lower the temperature of the Israel conversation in the American Jewish community by training facilitators to moderate conversations amongst people with radically different views. It’s not to make them agree with the other person, but just to help them be in the same space and listen to each other. So I have that in my head as something to infuse into the culture if I were the queen of Oberlin or something, because I think it’s really important to listen to someone even if you don’t agree with them. I mean, it’s a big task, and I’m just me, but that’s one of my ideas.

You spent several years working in Israel as a teacher. Can you say a bit what that was like?

It was really complicated. I was there immediately after I was ordained as a rabbi. My partner is Israeli, so I was there while she was finishing her Ph.D., and I loved a lot of it — I love speaking Hebrew — but Israel is a very complicated place to be if you are not Orthodox but are interested in being Jewish and practicing Judaism. It’s also a very complicated place to be queer. It’s not entirely difficult, and I know saying “complicated” is a cop-out, but that’s absolutely my Facebook status about living in Israel: it was complicated.

To go back to the controversy last year a bit, do you anticipate Jewish students will feel unsafe at all coming back to campus?

I definitely worry about it. I don’t know what to anticipate, but what I do know is I was here two weeks before students came back, and I spent a lot of time talking with administration and staff. My sense is, from that place, that there has been an enormous amount of effort and goodwill put into making Oberlin as safe a space as possible for all students on campus. I don’t yet have a sense of how students are feeling coming back, but my hope is that it will be a calmer year so we can do that rebuilding work in the Jewish community and the wider community.