Campus & Community
As a student at Oberlin College, Ethan Bair experienced such a meaningful connection with Hillel and with his rabbi that he was inspired to become a rabbi.
There was something beautiful about building community and teaching the ways of the Torah to college students for Bair, who earlier this summer was named Hillel at Syracuse University’s new rabbi and will serve as Jewish chaplain at Hendricks Chapel.
Helping students learn more about who they are while furthering their development intellectually and spiritually is one of the most exciting aspects of this new position for Bair, an accomplished Jewish community leader who brings more than 10 years of experience to campus.
Rabbi Bair is excited to get started building interfaith partnerships that help cultivate an empowered spiritual Jewish community while serving as a valuable mentor and resource to Jewish students — and the campus community as a whole.
He joins the podcast to discuss how he assists with the holistic development of Syracuse University’s Jewish students, why he’s passionate about forming meaningful connections and impactful relationships with the campus community, the importance of finding your joy and passion, and why being part of the multi -faith community at Hendricks Chapel is such a blessing.
Check out episode 116 of the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast featuring Ethan Bair. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
I know you’ve only been on campus for a short time, but during those six-plus weeks, what makes this University a special place?
I was very inspired by Chancellor Kent Syverud’s remarks at our FreshFest breakfast, because he talked about the unique history at Syracuse University when it comes to diversity. He told stories about the lack of quotas for Jewish students many decades ago when there were many colleges and universities that had quotas in place, and how Syracuse never did use a quota. He told a story about Japanese internment and college students from the camps in California who then received a full ride to Syracuse for college after the war. He discussed the proud history of serving our veterans and the great steps Syracuse has taken around the inclusivity of veterans and supporting them. It is a very welcoming place.
How did you become interested in serving as a Jewish community leader?
I am from Boston originally and went to Oberlin College for college, which is a small liberal arts college in Ohio. I had a very close relationship with my Hillel rabbi and was very active in Hillel there. I attribute my college experience for why I became a rabbi. There was a lovely Jewish community and the largest Jewish community that I was really ever a part of was in college. I was a religion and Jewish studies major in college, and I was considering going into academia. I did a Fulbright in Berlin right after college. I was considering going down a more academic route and realized I wanted to teach, but I liked the idea of teaching in a way that really connected to people’s lives and that would help people find meaning and build community. I wanted to teach outside the classroom, and that’s really why I became a rabbi.
Why did you want to come to Syracuse University as our rabbi, and how do you connect and relate to our students?
Students at Syracuse seem really engaged, really committed. They come sometimes knowing very specifically what they want to do, sometimes not at all, but the point is, I’m here to serve our students and it’s great to be at a big school where there’s more opportunity for that. We’re very fortunate, I feel, at Hillel at Syracuse University. Of course, we’re a religious organization in a certain way, but we’re also a cultural organization. This is space for Jewish community, and most of the programs that we do on a regular basis are about building community first. We also have opportunities for Jewish education, and soon I hope we will have opportunities for group support, wellness and social justice activities like community service. As for connecting, it’s about meeting students where they are and getting to know them and then we see what their interests are.
Hendricks Chapel is the University’s spiritual home. How special is it to join the multi-faith community at Hendricks?
It’s really important to have a multi-faith approach to religious and spiritual life on campus. The community that we build as interfaith chaplains permeates out into the campus community. This is a wonderful group of people who serve as chaplains at Syracuse through Hendricks Chapel, and it’s a blessing to get to know them and work with them on ways we can help our community together. I’m looking forward to those partnerships and deepening those relationships.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I think it’s really important to find what makes you most alive. Especially when it comes to vocation and what you want to do in the world, find your joy and your bliss and follow that, because if you do, you might get really lucky and end up with a job like I have. … Some people might not have this approach. They might think, ‘Oh, my job is my job and then I do what I want in my free time,’ but I think if you’re really lucky, you can find what really brings you joy and also makes you feel like you ‘re contributing to the world and making it better in some way. That is the nexus, how you can make a difference and where you find joy in doing it.