Michael Faber celebrates a quarter century as leader of IC’s Jewish community. by Khrista Trerotola '07
When you say Michael Faber’s name, the first thing that comes to mind is Michael smiling,” says Raphael “Rafi” Golberstein ’06, past student board member of Hillel and current member of IC Hillel’s board of directors, of the Jewish chaplain. “He has a wonderfully youthful sense of humor and outlook on life, and he is able to relate to students and their needs.”
When Michael Faber came to IC in 1982, his office, complete with an IBM Selectric typewriter and press-on labels, was considerably smaller than the one he has today, and the College had no kosher dining or Jewish studies classes. Now, 25 years later, not only has Faber remodeled and resized his office, but he has helped build a significant Jewish community at IC.
Kosher dining, Shabbat services every Friday evening, a Jewish studies minor, Hebrew and Jewish studies classes, and a strong Hillel program are just some aspects of the Jewish community at IC—and Faber has been a catalyst in the success of them all.
Faber moved to Ithaca not to teach Judaism, but to train in Buddhist meditation. After living on Canada’s prairies, learning Jewish studies and Buddhist philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan, he relocated to Ithaca to reside at the Ithaca Zen Center, which his high school friend Yoshin David Radin founded. Three years later, the job at IC “called his name.” Faber has been teaching in IC classrooms for 20 years, currently Modern Hebrew, housed in the Jewish studies department, and Cultivating Meditative Awareness in theater arts. “I take a nondenominational, nonsectarian approach to teaching the meditation class,” Faber says, “in which I train students to calm down, take care of their mind, and create mental space to allow insight—not just mere thought—to flow.”
At IC, Faber’s role is to work with Jewish students and create a Jewish community. Judaism, Faber points out, is more than a religion—it’s a culture and a way of life. “We have a much wider mandate than being just one of the religious communities,” says Faber, “because the Jews are a people and a culture and an ethnicity. Community to us means reaching Jewish students, if not religiously, then culturally, socially, politically, or communally—in whatever way we can celebrate ‘Jewish people-hood.’ ”
Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which Faber heads at IC, is an international organization that works with students to build Jewish community life on campuses. “We like to say, in Hillel, that being Jewish isn’t what it’s about; ‘doing Jewish’ is what it’s really about,” Faber says. “And ‘doing Jewish’ doesn’t have to be defined in a religious way at all—there are so many ways a Jew can realize what it means to live a full Jewish life.”
To illustrate this point, Faber elaborates: “There are some people with very strong cultural and social ties but very weak religious ties to Jewish life, and that’s an important distinction. That’s why our [Hillel’s] mandate reaches beyond just trying to do religious services and events; we engage in social and cultural programming as well.”
In addition to focusing on building Jewish life, Faber encourages each student to be a person of integrity, with concern for others—a mensch [one who does good deeds]. His community service agenda is ever-changing, adjusting to the current needs of outside communities. Recent mitzvot [good deeds] of members of the IC Jewish community have been their contributions to Locks for Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces for children who have lost their hair for medical reasons, and participation in the April rally for the people of Darfur in Washington, D.C.
This past fall students from Tzedak, the Hillel social justice arm, hosted a week of programs on the terrible human rights situation under the military regime in Burma. The events highlighted the large but often invisible Burmese refugee community in Ithaca, which is growing as more Burmese are forced into exile. Later this year a group of IC’s Hillel students will travel to Israel; they hope to spend a day in Haifa helping clear rubble and rebuild the community that was struck by missile attacks last August. Students also traveled to New Orleans on an alternative spring break to help in post-Katrina rebuilding.
Faber works not only with his own Jewish students, but with the other faith groups on campus as well. He and the campus’s Catholic chaplains, Mary Humenay and Fr. Mike Mahler, and Protestant chaplain Rev. Meredith Ellis use their interfaith gelt [money] for programs of wide interest to the campus, such as leadership retreats and alternative breaks. This semester such funding has contributed to a celebration of Israel Independence Day, and in the fall it will bring to campus Al Stagg’s one-man show A View from the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about the German Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis weeks before the end of World War II for conspiring against Hitler.
Faber likes his students to enjoy themselves and the Jewish traditions they share. Stefanie Pecker Orkin ’97, whose 2001 wedding ceremony in Cedarhurst, Long Island, was performed by Faber, will never forget one campus celebration of Purim, the joyful Jewish observance of deliverance, typically a day of fun and feasting. “Michael always put on a pretty crazy Purim experience,” she says. “That year he had a karaoke machine in the chapel, and he and I sang The Weight [the famous rock song by the Band] together in harmony.”
Today’s students have so many more distractions, Faber says, than their counterparts of a quarter century ago that they often forget about community. “Whether you’re super-active in the Jewish community or [just participate] marginally, it’s important to take part,” he says. “One of the values of Jewish life is to make community with your fellow Jews. That’s a tough challenge, more so now than ever.”
In the early 1980s not only were the students different, but Faber was much different, too. “I ask myself every day what is this persona I present to students,” he says. “Am I ‘grandpa’? Over the years I’ve come to rely more on a student-empowered community, which is, of course, the best type of community.”
“Some may see him as the hippie grandfather type,” admits Golberstein, “but the important thing is he’s incredibly young at heart.”
Despite the distractions students face and Faber’s possible “grandpa” persona, he successfully continues to keep his students engaged. Last fall he brought two guests to campus, Aryeh ben David, a master teacher from the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, and Jared Goldfarb from Melitz, an Israeli nongovernmental educational organization. The guests discussed Jewish culture and faith with students. Faber hopes to continue such programming and introduce more—notably, a scholar-in-residence program that would bring in weekend guests for informal but substantive Jewish education for interested students.
The College recently hired an alumna, Jill Goldsmith ’96, as a development officer for Jewish Studies. “It has been wonderful,” she says, “to come back to Ithaca College and find so many new things surrounded by the comforts of familiarity.” Although Jewish studies is an academic field and Hillel is a community, Goldsmith works with Faber. Like others who know him, she respects his contributions to Jewish life on campus. “It is truly inspiring that after 25 years here he [Faber] is still affecting students and dedicated to his work.”
Faber has no intention of leaving his chaplain position soon, but when he does, he wants to ensure continuity. He is proud of the Jewish community he’s helped to create and pleased that students continue to participate and display their faith. “We have created an environment where any Jewish student has a complete laboratory to nurture a Jewish future. I want to be sure there are enough funding and resources, and a good professional staff, so that what’s been done [during the past quarter century] will continue to grow in the future.”
To a long life, L’chaim.