Name: Jessica Minnen
School: The Rabbinical School
Graduation Year: 2013
The Jewish Theological Seminary: What made you decide to attend The Rabbinical School?
Jessica Minnen: I always thought of JTS as a magical place. It was the home of so many luminaries of Jewish learning-Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginsberg, Mordecai Kaplan, Louis Finklestein, Saul Lieberman, Abraham Joshua Heschel. The first time I came to visit, I felt a genuine sense of awe, some sort of otherwordliness, and I knew that I would have to learn here one day. I saved my day pass from that visit and pinned it to my bulletin board. That little piece of crumpled paper was, for me, like the green light across the bay must have been for Gatsby-something distant, full of promise, somewhat mysterious. The difference is that JTS was not just an ideal, but something to work toward, an attainable dream.
As I made my way through graduate school and became more engaged with scholarly work in the fields of Jewish Studies and Jewish Education, I began to realize that JTS is not only home to a rich legacy of learning, but the center of an academic community in which I very much wanted to take part. Can you believe I have learned with Joel Roth, Mayer Rabinowitz, Judith Hauptman, Neil Gillman, David Roskies, Burt Visotzky, Amy Kalmanofsky, Danny Nevins, Jack Wertheimer, Barry Holtz, Jonathan Milgram, Barry Dov Katz, Marjorie Lehman, David Kraemer, and Anne Lapidus Lerner? Because I can't. It is too good to be true. I wake up every day and think, "Do I really get to study Torah for a living?" Unbelievable.
JTS is still a magical place for me. Its luster never wears off. I didn't apply to any other rabbinical school programs. There was no other place I wanted to be.
JTS: Name your favorite JTS class.
JM: My favorite class so far has been the Communications Seminar with Rabbi Barry Dov Katz. Writing and public speaking have long been two of my favorite subjects, and in the Communications Seminar we get a chance to practice and perfect the skill set necessary for writing and effectively delivering sermons. We write talks for a variety of potential settings-High Holiday reflections, classic Shabbat sermons, eulogies-and receive feedback from our fellow students and Rabbi Katz in a thoughtful, constructive environment.
JTS: What do you enjoy most about being part of our community?
JM: I love the community here. I love that we celebrate with each other and mourn with each other. I love that when I am sick, people notice my absence and check in on me. I love that when I succeed, even in small ways, I feel the buoyant support of my deans, professors, and peers. I love that when my grandfather passed away, I received an outpouring of kindness and condolences. I love that when I broke my foot this summer, people volunteered without hesitation to help me do my grocery shopping and to host me for Shabbat meals.
JTS: What are your professional goals?
JM: While I love the pulpit and pastoral aspects of the rabbinate, my professional goals center around education. I am currently the assistant director of the Jewish Journey Project, a new initiative in supplementary Jewish education that is challenging the traditional Hebrew-school model and reimagining what Jewish learning can and should be for third to seventh graders. Our Manhattan-based pilot year will launch in September 2012.
I plan to begin my doctorate in Jewish Education at The Davidson School in the fall of 2013. I am primarily interested in the areas of educational theory, curriculum development, experiential learning, and professional development for educators and education administrators. My research interests include broad questions such as, "What does a rabbi need to know?" and "What does an 'educated Jew' in the 21st century need to know?" There are also more specialized questions-for example, "Where do social justice and spirituality intersect in the Jewish wisdom tradition?" and "How can we as educators incorporate this intersection into the curriculum in an experiential way?"
JTS: What has been the best JTS "moment" for you so far?
JM: I had a pretty great moment during my first week at JTS. I came here with a master's in Jewish Education, and one of my professors in graduate school spent many years studying with Barry Holtz. Over the years, I came to admire Dr. Holtz tremendously as a scholar and educator. For me, the academic is a special sort of rock star, and has the sheen of celebrity. So the first time I saw him sitting in the JTS cafeteria, I just stopped and stared. He looked up and saw me staring at him and gave me a kind, quizzical, "Do I know you?" look. Then, instead of being a normal person and walking over to Dr. Holtz and introducing myself, I ran-literally ran-outside JTS and called my grad school professor. "Dr. Shargel! Dr. Shargel!" I gushed. "I just saw BARRY HOLTZ in the cafeteria!" There was a pause, and then she laughed and said: "Then why are you on the phone with me? Go back inside and introduce yourself." Right. So I did. And now, four years later, I am applying to do my doctorate in The Davidson School. (Just so you know, Dr. Holtz was very nice, and didn't even seem to mind that I couldn't form complete sentences.)
JTS: Name your favorite place on campus.
JM: Because I live here, I have probably explored JTS more than most, and there are many places that I love in the buildings. But there is one spot in particular that is my favorite. There is a certain place on the north side of the second-floor terrace above the courtyard, and if you sit there in the late afternoon as the sun is setting, the light streams into the west windows of the Women's League Seminary Synagogue and through the beautiful stained-glass east windows that face the courtyard. For a few moments every day at this time, from this exact spot, the whole courtyard looks like it is bathed in a rainbow. It is breathtaking.
JTS: Have you gone to Israel as part of your JTS training?
JM: Yes. I spent 2010-2011 at the Schecter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. The highlight of my trip was when my Goobie (my paternal grandmother) came to visit for 10 days over Passover vacation. We rented a car and traveled around the entire country together. She's 80 but spry; I had a hard time keeping up with her. It was amazing being in Israel together, sharing all of my favorite places with her, and seeing the Land I love so dearly through the eyes of a person I love so dearly.
JTS: Do you live on campus or off?
JM: Yes. I am the RD (resident director) of Brush, the residence hall for graduate and professional students.
JTS: What's unique about your room/apartment/roommates?
JM: I love my apartment. My walls display artwork from my travels in Israel, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, as well as a framed reproduction of the cover of Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Magician of Lublin. I love living in a place where I know so many great rabbis have lived before me. There is a sense of history and continuity in the halls. My room is cozy and warm in the winter, open and breezy in the summer. I live on the third floor, and have a beautiful view of the JTS courtyard. I occasionally supply a bat kol ("heavenly voice") by calling out to people in the courtyard. It's great fun to watch their confusion as they look around trying to figure out where the voice is coming from. No better place than JTS to hear a voice from above.
JTS: Do you play any sports?
JM: I started running in 2009, and since then have relied on running as a sacred time for myself to clear my head and energize my body. I ran my first half-marathon during my first year at The Rabbinical School. I have some of my best ideas when I'm jogging-many of those ideas have gone on to be the basis of some of my most meaningful sermons and effective curricula.
I am currently writing a semester-long curriculum for the Jewish Journey Project called Jews on the Run, using a modality called "Active History" that I created and am in the process of developing. In the course, 6th- and 7th-grade students will come together to explore different periods of adversity throughout Jewish history as we train for a 5K.
Middle school is a crucial developmental stage for young people, a time when they need to begin to own the story of their past in order to tell the story of their future. Connecting the Jewish narrative to physical activity and the sense of self-esteem and accomplishment that comes from running is an amazing way to integrate Jewish learning into the lives, hearts, and souls of my students.
JTS: Website and blog?
JM: JewishJourneyProject.org. I follow Zachary Braiterman, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, and Arnold Eisen. I also enjoy many of the Huffington Post blogs.
JTS: Do you cook?
JM: Ha! Single girl in New York? Don't think so.