Watching him in the kosher café at NYU, his BlackBerry on the table while he talks with a student, you would be forgiven for mistaking Rabbi Yehuda Sarna for an undergraduate himself. But Rabbi Sarna has served as the rabbi for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU since 2002, also founding the Jewish Learning Initiative on campus in 2005, building a reputation for engaging Jewish students in creative ways and for encouraging interreligious dialogue, especially through his close friendship with NYU Imam Khalid Latif.
These days, Rabbi Sarna is focused less on interfaith meetings and more on helping Jews come to understand each other. "There’s already a divine script," for people of different faiths, he says. What appeals to him now is a closer relationship between Jews of different backgrounds and belief systems. "I’ve been thinking about how do you create a neutral space for? both religious and secular Jews," he says. "There’s not a lot of meaningful interaction."
To that end, the Bronfman Center began offering the Jewish Learning Fellowship, a 10-week course on Judaism with 100 students from all different backgrounds, some even non-Jewish. They learn about Jewish art, sexual ethics and other dynamic topics, and create a safe space through text where dialogue can flow and people can put down some of their Jewish baggage to really talk to each other.
Another topic that keeps him busy is the role of the rabbi in the larger community, especially during trying times. "I like a crisis," he says, recalling how his mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, showed up at morning prayers covered in dust the day after 9/11, and later took him down to the World Trade Center, where they searched for the most desperate, haunted people, regardless of religion, and comforted them. Rabbi Sarna carried that message on, flying down with an NYU group to Virginia Tech the day after the shootings there, and counseling students after the suicides of their close friends on campus. "You don’t have to be the one lifting the beam off someone," he says. "As a rabbi you can be the person inspiring the person lifting that beam."
Secret food aversion: "I don’t like bananas, or anything mushy."
Thrillseeker: He and his wife, Michelle, went bungee jumping together within the first few months of marriage.
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