‘A Synagogue Without Walls’

Written by Emma Murray on . Posted in Features

Campus rabbis equipped with training as pastoral counselors are a resource for one-on-one and community-wide support for Jewish students.

For many students, college means the opportunity to make new friends, discover a passion for a specific field, get involved with student groups, and experience endless positive opportunities. For many other students, college is also a time when new challenges, mental health issues, conflicts with classmates, friends and family, and the overall stress of academia start to take its toll on many students, regardless of race, gender, age, or religion. With schedules packed with social, academic, and extracurricular commitments, it can be hard for students to pause and think about getting the support they need.


Rabbi Aderet Drucker, campus rabbi and Director of Jewish Life and Learning for the Hillel of the University of Maryland, is working to change that.

Rabbi Drucker is familiar with pastoral counseling; received her ordination as a Conservative rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary with a concentration in pastoral care in 2012. She served a congregation in Northern California for four years before joining the staff at Maryland Hillel in August of 2016.

“The human dynamics” of working as a rabbi on a college campus are similar to those of working as a pulpit rabbi, said Rabbi Drucker, only the population she is supporting is students. “There are some differences in the day to day, but if you take a step back you are still working with individuals in a community,” she said.

In addition to advising various student groups at Hillel and teaching a variety of classes, she also provides one-on-one support to students in her role as pastoral counselor. Pastoral counselors are unique in their counseling approach because of their readiness and ability to incorporate ideas from a specific religion. Rabbi Drucker’s knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture and texts provides a comfort for many students who come to talk to her about challenges they are experiencing including managing their class load, issues with friends, family members, or sharing about physical or mental health issues.

“When students ask about the challenge of balancing parts of their life and taking care of themselves, I reference pikuach nefesh and remind them that their health comes first, they have to take care of themselves,” she said, “so those moments offer an assurance, almost like a proof text. It may be enough that I’m saying it, but it’s nice to bring in the reminder [of the sources] that this is actually from our tradition.”

A student’s support team can consist of psychologists, psychiatrists, professors, friends, and/or family members, said Rabbi Drucker. “Rabbinic confidentiality” is incredibly important to her, she said, and she reminds students her office is a safe space for them to share with her.

Rabbi Drucker works closely with the other rabbis and staff members at Maryland Hillel, brainstorming events, classes, or Shabbat dinners for students to help them “unplug” from their phones and computers and connect to other people around them. Even though she is somewhat new to the staff, Rabbi Drucker says she has found support from within the system and admires the skillset of all of the staff at Maryland Hillel of holding space with students and making it a supportive place.

With close to 6,000 Jews on campus, Rabbi Drucker and her colleagues at Maryland Hillel work closely with the many Jewish student groups on campus and student leaders to create events, programs, and opportunities to build community, encourage conversation between the different student groups, and help students feel supported at Maryland Hillel and on campus.

Rabbi Drucker and the Maryland Hillel staff also offer events to encourage students to “unplug,” as she calls it. Just last week, Rabbi Drucker led a Kabbalat Shabbat service where she set a kavanah (intention) for the students that Shabbat will be a space to shut down and unwind, to try and be in the moment. Rabbi Drucker reminds students of the purpose of Shabbat and how it gives Jews the permission to not do work, something that many students have a hard time with.

During the week of May 8, Maryland Hillel will be hosting its first “Wellness Week.” Rabbi Drucker and her Maryland Hillel colleague Jessa Cameron have designed the week to include events each day designed to encourage students to take a break. For “Monday Meditation,” Rabbi Drucker will lead a meditation practice and speak on the Jewish roots of mindfulness. “Trail Mix Tuesday” will encourage students to make a healthy snack to take with them when studying. “Tea and Talk Thursday” will give students a break from classes and homework to sip tea and talk with each other.

Rabbi Drucker said she hopes Wellness Week will become a regular event each semester, furthering efforts to encourage and support students in some of the most enlightening, challenging, and transformative years of their lives.

By Emma Murray

 Emma Murray is originally from Monmouth County, New Jersey, and moved to Kemp Mill in August 2016. She currently attends University of Maryland College Park and will graduate with her Masters of Science in Couple and Family Therapy in May 2017.