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Gonzaga has rabbi, Torah and Jewish campus ministry

Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein holds Gonzaga's Torah.

By Abby Strader - Intern

Founded by Jesuits in 1887, Gonzaga University is a Catholic institution.

Its religious identity is evident in the crucifixes decorating every classroom and the church bells ringing across campus on the half hour.

However, in recent years, Gonzaga has made strides in welcoming the presence of cultures and religions other than Catholicism.

Elizabeth Goldstein is a religious studies professor, the sole rabbi on campus and an advocate for expanding opportunities and resources and for increasing the level of comfort for Jewish students at Gonzaga.

Elizabeth was born in New Jersey and raised Jewish.

"My parents were committed to our cultural and religious heritage. We celebrated all the holidays and had pride in being Jewish," she said.

She attended a Hebrew parochial school following the Yeshiva model, where she learned more about sacred texts and laws, and built upon the foundation her parents had established for her. Morning instruction focused on religion, and afternoons included classes like math and science.

Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein shows ark holding the Torah.

"I knew I wanted to become a rabbi when I was 14," said Elizabeth.

As a teenager, she remembers having strong spiritual experiences and wanting to spend more time with God.

After graduating from Dartmouth College, she went to Israel. This year-long trip prepared her for five years of seminary, first at the Conservative-tradition Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Then, after a year as a hospital chaplain in San Francisco, she completed her studies at the Reform-tradition Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2001. She was ordained that year as a rabbi.

Elizabeth taught for two years in Jewish communities in San Francisco and earned a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of California, San Diego in 2010 before she came to Gonzaga to teach courses in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

"If you would have told me that this would be my job, I would have said no way," said Elizabeth.

Interacting with the students and being in a college classroom every day has become her favorite part of her role as campus rabbi at Gonzaga.

"My job is to help people figure out their Jewish identity. I feel like I help my students shape their identity and who they are, but particularly I feel like I can do a service in helping Jewish students formulate and grow their own Jewish identity. For non-Jewish students, I can help them understand Jewish people and the Jewish religion better."

At GU, Elizabeth also serves as an advisor to the Jewish club on campus called the Jewish Bulldogs.

"There were always Jews here, but there was never an organized community," Elizabeth said.

Formed in 2014, the Jewish Bulldogs serves as a home base for Jewish people across campus and now includes more than 30 students. It is student run and driven, and also encourages students of other faiths who want to learn about Judaism to attend.

Students of diverse backgrounds attend the Jewish Bulldog meetings. Some were raised in Judaism, others were not but have Jewish heritage, and some just want to learn more about the faith.

The Jewish Bulldogs hold worship services for Holy Days, do Torah study, hold monthly Shabbat meals and gather for small group spiritual exploration.

"My goal is that the group provides a space where students can talk about Jewish identity, where they can pray and go to worship services for the Sabbath, and have community," said Elizabeth.

Part of Elizabeth's role as advisor to the Bulldogs was acquiring a Torah for the students to use on campus. Since October 2021, it has been located in the Jewish sacred space, which is one of the non-denominational worship spaces on the third floor of College Hall.

To bring a Torah, she submitted a proposal to Gonzaga's Office of Mission and Ministry and then asked University Advancement for assistance in fund raising.

"Shanna Dunne in the office of development helped raise funds for this acquisition," said Elizabeth.

A new Torah can cost $40,000 to $60,000, but refurbished ones run from $9,000 to $20,000. They set a goal of $15,000 and raised funds from alumni, Gonzaga and the community. 

Eventually, the Torah arrived on campus from Sofer On Site, an organization that revamps damaged or used Torahs and gives them a new life.

Gonzaga's Torah was placed in an ark crafted by a set builder from the Gonzaga University Performing Arts Center. 

Elizabeth, former Jewish Bulldogs President, Hannah Zeva Presken, and other Jewish staff members all assisted in designing the piece.

Hebrew letters "Eitz Hayyim" (Tree of Life) spread across the doors of the ark.

Having a Torah allows Jewish students to participate in worship and experience Holy Days without having to leave the Gonzaga campus. 

During the COVID-19 shutdown, Elizabeth understood that accessibility to resources like a Torah was important for students. 

Since providing one on campus, she said, many students have expressed interest in learning more parts of the worship service, such as how to chant from the Torah.

"I wanted to increase Jewish visibility on campus. I wanted people to have a sense of pride in being Jewish, and I realized that having a Torah would create a sense of Jewish designation."

She also organizes High Holy Day worship services for students on campus, the first of them being Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is also known as Jewish New Year and was celebrated by Bulldogs on Sept. 25. Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement," services were on Oct. 5.

The Yom Kippur celebration included several different events throughout the day—a morning service, a meditative service, an evening discussion about Jewish identity, a closing service or Nalliah, and a "break the fast" event for students.

Although Gonzaga is taking steps to increase comfortability, many Jewish students still struggle psychologically with attending school on a Catholic campus, where most people don't know about their culture or lifestyle, explained Elizabeth. 

To promote greater understanding and respect among diverse people, Gonzaga's Center for the Study of Hate examines the impact of hate on individuals and offers culturally significant events for Jewish people, like a recent exhibit on Americans and the Holocaust.

"I have worked closely with the Center for the Study of Hate and support their work. In the last few years, they have supported my efforts to build a Jewish community on campus," said Elizabeth.

As more students come to Gonzaga, Elizabeth is hopeful she can continue to educate students of all backgrounds about Judaism.

"When I drive to work every day, I feel happy," she said. "Even though sometimes there is ignorance, for the most part people just want to learn and grow. I feel that's why students come to a place like Gonzaga."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2023