Arcadia University’s new Rabbinic Intern, Julie Benioff, didn’t grow up attending synagogue regularly. She didn’t go to Hebrew school. In fact, she remembers asking her parents if she could enroll, but neither had had a positive experience from which to draw on; the idea was not encouraged. But when she struck out on her own at the University of Massachusetts, she began to make a deeper connection to Judaism.
“My whole life I longed to be more connected to my faith,” says Benioff. “And for me, college was a time to start exploring who I wanted to become.” Everything was new, unfamiliar. And in a sea of 25,000 people at UMass, Benioff remembers feeling overwhelmed. In her first week of school an upperclassman from her high school invited her to a Hillel Shabbat dinner. “I only knew one person in the entire school, so the Shabbat dinner was big for me—I loved it,” she says. “It was sweet and gave me a lot of happiness and joy. I just loved everything.”
It’s with this understanding that she is approaching her new position at Arcadia. In just a few short weeks, Benioff worked with Hillel to establish Shabbat as a new campus tradition also assembling a prayer book. But that’s just the beginning. Benioff is currently collaborating with Ursinus and West Chester Colleges to have a Shabbaton, an entire weekend with the main focus on the Shabbat, and she has some big goals for the months ahead.
“I hope to be a source of empowerment and inspiration to students, to help foster their leadership and their sense of community; to help them feel supported and listened to,” she says. “To let students know that they’re allowed to explore who they are and what it means to be human, which includes being Jewish. They’re really in this beautiful time of discovery and I hope to help facilitate them in the best way that I can.”
Benioff knows firsthand how important a faith-based community can be during college—and beyond. While pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Benioff moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, with her soon to be husband, to spend her senior year in the National Student Exchange program. Again, an outsider in a new place, she found stability in the Jewish community, getting involved first as a congregant, then as a member of the board of directors, as a lay service leader, as a leader of a monthly women’s group and as director of the religious school. Her synagogue was one of the places she was happiest. She began to dream of becoming a Rabbi.
In 2006, Benioff and her first husband divorced and in 2007 she lost her mother to cancer. These painful events led Benioff to re-imagine her life.
She knew that the path to becoming a Rabbi is a long and difficult one, but no other route was complete. “If I did social work then I wouldn’t have the spiritual aspect, if I went into Jewish education, then I wouldn’t have the social work piece,” she notes. The desires of her heart weren’t easily quieted so she began to research and put the pieces together. Eventually the time was right to make it happen. Today, remarried and with two children, Benioff is blossoming. She’s in her second year of the Rabbinical program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. Since the move, Arcadia has always been “the Castle School” to Benioff’s four-year-old daughter, Rachel. (The University is just four blocks away from their home.) But the family’s knowledge of the University didn’t expand until fall 2012, when she noticed a posting for the Rabbinical Intern position. Now Arcadia is more than just “the Castle school.” It’s a new home.
“Working on a college campus is something that I really wanted to do,” she says. “I am so grateful to have this opportunity to work with Arcadia. I feel inspired by the energy and enthusiasm on campus from so many people. I am inspired by who they are, what they’re doing and their vision for the future. It’s really great to be here.”