By Andrew Zerman | Staff Writer
Gleaming and dirty students holding shovels on a service trip, crucifixes and crosses and pastel chalk on a blackboard. Such are the images which line the walls of the Center for Faith and Justice (CFJ). Now, joining this myriad of art forms is a mezuzah, a decorative case containing a verse from the Torah, which hangs above the doorway to the office of Rabbi Jennifer Lewis.
The CFJ has always been a place of many colors, but with the addition of Lewis, the palate has grown a little larger. On July 1, the CFJ officially welcomed Lewis to their team, who now serves as the first full-time Jewish chaplain and interfaith director on Xavier’s campus.
Lewis spent most of her childhood in Galveston, Texas, where she was raised in the Jewish tradition. After studying for her master’s degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of California, she decided to move to Cincinnati, where she has spent the last several years.
In Cincinnati, she immersed herself in rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she focused on pluralism in interfaith dialogue. She also became a chaplain at different hospitals in the area and officiated life cycle events for Jewish families who may not have congregational affiliations.
Even though her role at Xavier is specifically geared toward Jewish students, Lewis also explained that her training in chaplaincy allows her to serve people of every faith, not just the Jewish tradition.
“One of the really amazing things about our office is that this is one place where all the different faith communities can feel comfortable, even somebody who may not necessarily identify with another faith tradition,” she said.
Lewis added that she feels as though part of her role at the CFJ is helping students connect to one another, regardless of their background.
This interfaith work is not new to Lewis, as she made it a part of her professional life prior to Xavier. “For the past five to six years, I’ve been in a women’s group called Women’s Interfaith Network of Cincinnati,” she said.
At Xavier, Lewis serves as a coordinator for the CFJ’s inaugural Interfaith Task Force. She is responsible for organizing a group of students who evaluate interfaith dialogue on campus and assess Xavier’s performance in this domain.
“With interfaith, we have a task force of students who are looking at how well interfaith dialogue is on campus and what are areas that students think Xavier is doing really well in, and what are areas that we think we could maybe grow and improve, in terms of bringing together different faith communities to dialogue,” Lewis said. “We may not agree with each other’s theology, necessarily, but we want to at least provide the space and provide the mutually respectful environment where people can talk.”
To begin this growth, Lewis said that the CFJ is going to start a process in which consultants come to Xavier to help build a strategic plan for future interfaith work.
However, Lewis also acknowledged that this work comes with challenges.
“There’s this concept of pluralism, which is the idea of reaching out and building bridges across different faith traditions so that when people come into a room together, everyone can feel like they are heard or listened to,” she said.
Sophomore Zach Kline said Lewis’ presence has been helpful for Jewish students like him. “Since her arrival, I have an interest in getting involved with the CFJ, and I have made some great friends who are also Jewish,” Kline said.
Lewis also said she enjoys her position because it is one that connects her directly with college-aged students.
“I feel like it’s an intriguing and important part of a person’s life’s path,” she said. “This time of transition between coming from one’s home community, home background, parents’ house and then going into the greater world, that it’s a time when people are coming into their own sense of identity.”
In addition, Lewis serves as the staff advisor for the Xavier Student Sustainability Club (XSS). “The environmental protection piece grew out of my involvement in public policy work,” Lewis said. “The idea of getting engaged in our community to effect change was all really important and a big piece