Before the new year rings in, Rabbi Mike Uram, 44, will leave his post as executive director and campus rabbi of Penn Hillel after nearly 17 years on the job.
Uram, who won a National Jewish Book Award in 2016 for “Next Generation Judaism: How College Students and Hillel Can Help Reinvent Jewish Organizations,” will become the chief vision and education officer of Pardes North America, the American arm of the influential Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
In his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Uram had a front-row seat to the changing priorities and tendencies of Jewish college students — regarding Israel, denominational differences, religious practice and more — and will bring that field experience to his position at Pardes, which charges him to increase the frequency and quality of Torah learning in America.
Uram spoke to the Jewish Exponent about the students he’s worked with, what the next generation of Hillel leaders can do to succeed and being mistaken for a college junior.
What will you miss most about Penn Hillel?
What I’ll miss most is the students. Being around an incredible, high-density group of smart, passionate, nice, idealistic and super-effective people. There are very few places with as rich and dynamic of an undergraduate student community as the University of Pennsylvania, and all of that is just maximized by the incredible richness and dynamic nature of the university itself.
And being around young people is incredibly stimulating. It keeps you young, and keeps you tied in to what’s really happening in the world, and how the world is changing in front of us. And I will miss that very deeply.
When you were hired at Hillel, you were 28. Do you feel like you’re the same person as when you arrived?
No. That’s part of what’s so meaningful to reflect on.
When I came to Philadelphia, my wife and I had just gotten married. And essentially, in a 16-year period, I learned to be a husband, and learned what it meant to really be a rabbi. I learned what it meant to be a father, three times over. I learned what it meant to become a leader.
I think that that’s a word that was thrown around, but actually having the responsibility of taking care of a relatively large organization and a huge constituency of students, parents and alumni, I think I’ve learned how to stand up publicly and stand up for the things that I believe in.
And I am an entirely different person in that way. When I started, people would be like, “Oh, are you a junior?” And then a few years went by, and students would say, “Oh, are you a grad student?” And now freshmen even say, “Oh, are you someone’s dad?”
The way that I relate to students has really changed, from being the cooler older brother or camp counselor vibe. There was a period in the middle where I wasn’t really sure how I related, because I was too old to be the new young rabbi, but I wasn’t yet at the uncle or parent place yet. And that’s actually been one of the nice things about the last four or five years, that I’m able to play a role that is definitely an adult role with students, with all of the distance that comes with that, but none of the baggage of the student might have with their parents or their direct relatives.
What is going to make the next generation of Hillel leaders successful? What would you tell them?
The first thing and most important thing is to be incredibly, deeply committed to students. College is a learning laboratory, where students take the lead. And so the highest level of Hillel work is where it is not about providing services to students, but pushing certain students into action, to grow into Jewish leaders in their own right. We always say, the best d’var torah that a Hillel rabbi could ever give is when a student gives it.
A successful Hillel leader is someone who knows how to put their ego aside and to make room for the student. The goal is not to shine on their own, but to create space.
The second thing is that because campuses are becoming increasingly political and fractured, just like the rest of American society, future Hillel directors have to be politically nimble, so that they can relate to and care for a very large spectrum of Jews, of different Jewish identity formulations, different political orientations and to hold together a very broad tent.
The third piece is a really deep emphasis on impact over attendance. If we’re just focused on getting more students to show up and to participate, that’s not a deep enough mission. The mission has to be to create experiences and relationships and communities that really provoke students to grow into fully self-actualized adults. And that is a much more serious mission than just attendance.
And the final thing is that they have to be really gifted at both the kind of art of the work, which is this intangible ability to connect with people, to inspire people about Judaism, but also have strong business skills, to use data and metrics to work more effectively and more efficiently, and be able to not just do the work, but to able to build systems.