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Teacher, activist, rabbi: Lisa Vinikoor guides Hillel

September 15, 2017

Jenny Ibsen
Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor joined the Bowdoin community at the start of the school year. She discussed August's bias incident with students and hopes to help students navigate the current political climate.

To Lisa Vinikoor, the journey from elementary school teacher to social justice worker to rabbi was a natural progression.

Vinikoor, the College’s new part-time rabbi as of August, first felt the pull to her future career on September 11, 2001, during her first week as a third- and fourth-grade teacher in Boston.

“I was a very young teacher, having to explain to third and fourth-graders this kind of horrible tragedy that happened in our country, and I actually think that experience, trying to explain to them something that was pretty unimaginable, was kind of one of the early kernels that I had of wanting to become a rabbi,” said Vinikoor. “Because we’re confronted with the brokenness of our world all the time, and to be able to help people through challenges like that is – I think that was a kernel of my wanting to be a rabbi.”

With time, Vinikoor became more and more frustrated at her inability to change her students’ lives beyond the classroom, and decided to devote herself to fighting systemic inequality in the greater Massachusetts community. As a social justice community organizer in Boston, she worked with faith communities of all denominations to advocate for low-income populations and helped organize a grassroots effort to pass a 2004 Massachusetts law that would ultimately expand access to healthcare for almost a half a million people.

“No matter how hard that fight got and it got very, very hard working with … people of faith always gave me a sense that there was something bigger than our concerns,” said Vinikoor. “I found it very grounding. So part of my interest in being a rabbi was that I had been working mostly in the non-Jewish community, with Christian pastors and ministers and priests, and I was ready to go kind of be a community organizer and be a teacher in my own faith community.”

As the College’s primary rabbi, Vinikoor is responsible for supporting student Hillel leadership and assisting with programming, leading prayer services and supporting the religious lives of Jewish students on an individual basis.

Through this role, Vinikoor hopes to help Jewish students negotiate their place in the campus community, as well as in the world beyond Bowdoin. Vinikoor hopes that she can help Bowdoin students to come to terms with the country’s increasingly hostile political climate.

“The political atmosphere in our country is upsetting, to say the least,” said Vinikoor. “And so figuring out what we can do that’s a good use of our energy and time and skills and talents — I think about this both for the congregation and for Bowdoin students — that feels like a big challenge.”

Vinikoor met with students following last month’s bias incident in which a campus study space was defaced with hateful images, including a swastika.

“I see my work as both working reactively and proactively,” said Vinikoor. “Reactively is obviously being here to support students for whatever feelings they have to bring- concerns, worries. And proactively, helping to be another voice of many on campus. There’s great leadership [on] campus around tolerance for all different kinds of people and beliefs, but also an intolerance for hate, and so I want to be one of those many voices, helping to foster that.”

One of Vinikoor’s primary goals is to foster student leadership among the College’s Jewish community, and to help Hillel co-presidents Carly Berlin ’18 and Sam Kyzivat ’18 in carrying out their plans for the year.

“I’m just impressed … [by students’] interest in kind of engaging in the Jewish community, but also thinking about, ‘what does it mean to be Jewish in the larger world?’ in a campus which obviously is not just made up of Jewish students,” said Vinikoor. “So asking questions like, ‘how do we as Jews engage in social justice work, engage in work with other communities across campus?’”

Berlin says Vinikoor is well positioned to help Hillel student leaders to achieve their goals, which include potential programming on Jewish students in social justice.

“Rabbi Vinikoor is … super receptive to our ideas and just wants to, it seems, help us and support us in any way she can,” said Berlin.

Vinikoor divides her time between the College, where she works about eight hours per week, and Beth Israel Congregation in Bath.

Rabbi Vinikoor’s door is open to any students who wish to discuss their religious or spiritual lives.

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