First Person

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Rabbi, Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue, Seattle

What was your motivation for pursuing a degree in Jewish studies?

I wanted to become a rabbi, but it was impractical for me to enroll in a traditional rabbinical school. I was married, had two children, a home and a mortgage, a community and a life in Seattle. So I decided to take a different route and embrace the long-held tradition whereby rabbis in communities trained and ordained their successors. I  become my rabbi’s apprentice, underwent a five-year rabbinic practicum and become executive director of the community to learn the administrative component of running a synagogue. The one piece missing was the academic learning component: a degree in Jewish studies. That’s when, miracle of miracles, I found the Hebrew College online MAJS program, and signed up right away.

rabbi olivier benhaimHow has your Jewish studies degree helped you in your professional life?

My degree was critical to my professional life as it was part of my three-pronged learning program — rabbinic practicum, synagogue administration, academic learning — leading to my private ordination. Beyond that, my learning has infused my teaching as a rabbi. It has benefitted not only me, but my students and congregants as well.

In your personal life?

The years studying at Hebrew College have opened me to the immensity of Jewish learning. The process grounded me personally to the roots of my Jewish identity, helped me appreciate my lineage in ways I was unable to do beforehand and, most important, gave me greater ability to hold a plurality of perspectives at once, compare and contrast multiple points of view and recognize the truth and validity of each one.

Whom or what do you draw inspiration from?

For awhile, I was drawn to the teachings of Mussar and the beautiful masters of that path. In the last couple of years, I have switched my interest to the Hasidic masters, old and new, as well as those rabbis and Jewish scholars who are blazing trails in our day and age. And I always come back to Jewish history and philosophy because it helps me to better understand who we, as a people, are evolving to be today.

Describe the Jewish studies program in three words.

Mind-expanding, deepening, relevant.

Did you have a favorite class or professor?

To say I loved them all would be cliché. But because of my interest in philosophy, I would say that my two favorite classes were Maimonides, Spinoza and Mendelssohn, and Jewish Thought in the Modern Age.

What was it like to take an online degree program, and how may that have differed from your expectations?

I was extremely skeptical of the process, but I discovered that online study was a more intimate and deepening experience than anything I encountered when I attended brick-and-mortar colleges. More intimate because you develop a direct rapport with your professors, forming personal connections unheard of in a college context. More deepening because the online chat rooms enable you to engage in real-time conversations with your peers and professors alike. This kind of learning is unmatched.

To whom would you recommend this program?

To anyone whose life story is similar to mine and to those who are interested, professionally or personally, in deepening their understanding of Judaism as a whole. Hebrew College is a serious institution, and the quality of learning, supported by world-renowned professors, is of the highest caliber.

What advice would you offer students just starting out in the Jewish studies program?

First, be extremely disciplined; set a fixed schedule, dedicating whatever hours you need each day to studying and tackling the coursework. Second, don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed when you're doing research; pick a handful of websites as your go-to destinations, and stick with them. Finally, don’t hesitate to share your thoughts by posting to the student listserv; you learn best by discussing your work with your peers in the class.