Rabbi Jacqueline Satlow, her husband Michael Satlow and their three children moved to Providence 16 years ago, when Michael became a professor of Judaic Studies and Religious Studies at Brown University. The couple’s son Donnie just graduated from Brown, while daughter Penina has completed her first year there. Son Jeremy will be a high school senior in the fall.
Jewish Rhode Island recently spoke with Rabbi Satlow at her UMass office:
You grew up in the New York area, but you’ve lived in Rhode Island for 16 years. Do you consider yourself more of a New Yorker or a Rhode Islander?
The house I’m living in now I’ve lived in longer than any other house in my life, so I guess I’m a Rhode Islander.
What have you found surprising or interesting about Rhode Island?
There are three seasons where I love the weather; winter isn’t that great. I love living near the ocean, and I love living on the East Side, because we’re walking distance to the JCC [the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center], Brown, Beth-El, Emanu-El and Beth Sholom [temples].
Why did you decide to join the rabbinate?
In New Jersey, we belonged to a very active Reform synagogue. I was drawn to the youth group, and teachers, rabbis and advisers gave me a wonderful spiritual base. I was looking for a way to bring together my love of Israel, spirituality and Jewish texts, and the rabbinate was a natural way to bring all of those things together.
So you identify most with the Reform movement?
Of course, because in a way they created me, but I’ve had the chance to study with many different people and appreciate the diversity of Jewish life.
What are the responsibilities of your position as Jewish culture coordinator?
I’m the faculty adviser for UMass Dartmouth Hillel, which is mostly student-run. I bring Jewish cultural events to campus. The more money the organization has, the better programming we can do.
And what about your work as the director of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life?
I’ve been in that position for a bit more than three years. I oversee and coordinate all of the campus clergy, and interface between them and the university. We have a priest, deacon, swami, pastor, and we’re always looking to bring more clergy in. I have a series of lectures on religious diversity, and help to educate literate members of society. My favorite thing is teaching, and learning from everybody – but making sure that each group is having their needs met can be a challenge.
Why did you choose to work with students?
I think it’s a great stage of life. I enjoy working with students as they’re trying to set up their lives. When I moved to Providence with three small kids, working with students seemed like a great fit.
What’s your favorite thing about working with students?
I really like teaching in a college classroom. I like doing my part in educating the next generation [so they] can think critically and ask questions. I like helping them emerge as well-rounded, thoughtful and well-educated citizens.
What do you find rewarding about your work?
I don’t just work with students; I do a whole bunch of Jewish programming. We’ve had visits from [novelist] Jonathan Safran Foer, [philosopher and novelist] Rebecca Goldstein, [novelist] Tova Mirvis. Jewish culture is really fascinating – that’s one thing I enjoy.
What sorts of challenges do you face in your work?
There’s a very small Jewish population here. I do a lot of interfaith work, and just a little piece with Jewish students.
What sorts of students do you work with? Is there much diversity?
In general, I work with a lot of first-generation college students and Americans, but I’ve had students whose parents were Russian, Israeli, Argentinian … that’s a little unusual for the American Jewish community in this generation.
We have students from all backgrounds – Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and some that don’t really know that they’re Jewish, or they know they’re Jewish, but that’s all they know. I’ve worked with people who’ve discovered they’re Jewish, and helped them to figure out where to go from there.
What sort of religious programming have you done on campus?
Recently, we had a program co-sponsored by Hillel and [global education provider] Navitas, and we did a Passover seder on the theme of being a stranger in a strange land. We had students from China and Pakistan, and it was wonderful being able to teach them something about Jewish culture.
Your husband’s academic specialty is Judaic Studies. Is there any crossover in your work? How did you meet?
We met in 1990, when we were both studying in Jerusalem. Iraq had invaded Kuwait in August, and things got more and more tense. In January, there was an advisory urging Americans to leave the country. Neither of us did, and we met at a Shabbat dinner held for the remaining Americans that our host knew. Today, we definitely share many intellectual interests. We discuss modern Jewish thought, social justice and Israeli politics over the dinner table.
Do you have a favorite Jewish word?
I think my favorite Jewish word is mensch. My son Jeremy is finishing 11th grade at Classical High School. He plays football, and the coach spoke about creating people of character and integrity. That’s so meaningful to me, and I’d like to add the component of Jewish literacy, which is so important to me.
What about a favorite Jewish food?
At the moment, latkes are sounding really good to me. Other than that they’re fattening, they’re my favorite.
And a favorite Jewish holiday?
Shabbat. I love taking the time regularly to step away from the incredibly rushed nature of the world we live in to take time to reflect and rest.
Which three people, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?
Emma Goldman [political activist, writer], Rosa Luxemburg [Polish philosopher, political activist] and Trotsky [Russian revolutionary, Soviet politician], because I’m attracted to the radical nature of their ideas. But I’m not sure how pleasant or charming they’d be to sit with, so my answer gives me pause.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
You know, when I was a new mother, my mother said to me, “Whenever the baby goes to sleep, you should sleep.” That was enormously useful.
Please share a recent experience that you found impactful.
Part of my current practice is to choose one word from the liturgy and focus on it. Lately, modim [prayer of thanks] has been speaking to me, to remember where Judaism and positive psychology come together with gratitude, and to keep that in mind.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.