Answering the Call to Inclusive Judaism

September 1, 2014
Jeremy Sher
HDS student Jeremy Sher

Jeremy Sher was at a dead end. A 1999 MIT graduate with a degree in mathematics, Sher had a flourishing career in technology, but his heart wasn't in it. He felt called to life as a rabbi but couldn't attend traditional schools that prohibit interfaith dating, a stricture against which he is morally opposed. Then he heard the call of the shofar.

"I was listening to the shofar service during Rosh Hashanah, and I heard the famous quote from Maimonides," Sher says. " 'Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save.' I knew I had to become a full-time student in order to put my education first. I had an epiphany: what if I went to divinity school?"

Today Sher's pursuits are far from vain, thanks to HDS's multifaith ministry education program. The second-year MDiv student says that the School's critical approach to the study of religion is a good fit for aspiring rabbis and for Judaism's focus on lifelong learning and debate. Moreover, its pluralistic environment, which demands engagement with other traditions, adds a dimension to Sher's education that he would not have at an established rabbinical school.

"As a Jewish student anchoring my rabbinical education in my HDS experience, I'm in a minority of one," Sher says. "But my education is enriched by comparing methods and notes with friends from a variety of traditions. I benefit from encountering my colleagues' religions in a meaningful way, as I will necessarily continue to do, and HDS also benefits from meaningful encounters with Judaism as a living religion. HDS teaches us mutual respect as a platform for collaboration and ferment."

Rabbinical education is an atypical—but not unheard-of—path at HDS. Sher says that his goal here is not only to meet but also to exceed the rigor of a rabbinical school curriculum. Along those lines, he plans to spend a full five years in study—including a year abroad in Israel. Sher takes a full course load at Harvard, as well as one or two additional courses each semester with Organic Torah Institute's Rabbi Natan Margalit, who holds a PhD in Talmud from UC Berkeley and has rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Seminary in Israel. When Sher is ready, an independent court of three rabbis will ordain him.

"Rabbinical schools are great," he says. "I honestly would have gone to one if not for my refusal to sign the oath against interfaith dating. But here at Harvard, there's not only a very high intellectual standard, but also an openness that comes from being the oldest and most successful multifaith divinity school in the world."

Sher says that placement with a congregation will be a challenge; he may need to start one in order to fulfill his rabbinic mission. Despite the obstacles, he has absolutely no regrets about coming to HDS. His decision stems from core concerns about the future of his faith.

"If my choices were only about myself, this wouldn't have been important enough for me to swim this far upstream," he says. "The question of interfaith relationships is about the demographic survival of the Jewish community. People are leaving in droves, and I think a major reason is that we, their religious leaders, make them feel unwelcome. We need a new approach. To preserve our Jewish future, we must create communities that welcome everyone."

Sher's path to HDS was as atypical as is his path to the rabbinate. In 2003, he created a pioneering voter database for the Washington State Democratic Party. In 2005, he started his own tech company in Seattle. In 2008, Sher was wooed back to Boston to be CEO of Auburn Quad Community Fundraising (now ActBlue Technology Services), which produces, America's leading source of funds for political candidates in the Democratic Party. There was just one problem.

"God wanted me to pursue rabbinic study," Sher says. "The rabbinate is my vocation. It’s what I’m here to do."

An HDS Ministry Fellow, Sher says that scholarship aid makes it possible for him to come to divinity school, and it will allow him to focus on his vocation rather than on educational debt when he graduates.

"The fellowship made it possible for me to come to HDS, which is making it possible for me to fulfill my goal of becoming a rabbi," he says. "It's enabled me to stand up for inclusion in the Jewish community and changed not only my life, but also the lives of others I am able to help in my work."

Last spring Sher won the Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, which will enable him to spend the next year in Israel. He says he wants to do research on a curious new phenomenon: secular Israelis who study the Talmud.

"Secular Israeli culture is more oppositional than neutral toward religious tradition and authority," he explains. "And yet you have organized groups of secular Israelis studying pages of the Talmud. Why? Are they connecting with tradition? Do they see it as a source of wisdom? Are they just curious? I want to know what draws them to the text. I wonder if this phenomenon holds clues to what liberal American Jewry today is missing."

When he graduates, Sher says that he'd like to move to San Francisco, where he believes the Jewish community is underserved. There, he hopes to bring the pluralistic perspective of his HDS experience to an urban ministry. Sher says that interfaith work is not only critical for the future of Judaism, but also for global peace and security.

"We have to learn to live together on this planet," he says. "If World War III happens, I think it will be religious in cause and nature. The way to avoid it is to build edifices of friendship brick by brick, across lines of religion, ethnicity, and culture. That's what I came to HDS to do. And I want to thank HDS for making it possible."