There are many rabbis at UCLA. The Jewish Awareness Movement has two, Chabad has one, and Hillel has three full-time rabbis and one rabbinic intern. Each of these people brings his or her unique perspectives to prayer services, learning groups, and student interactions. Some rabbis are also more famous than others — everyone is familiar with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller’s intensely philosophical and tangential shiurim (lectures), Rabbi Jacob Rupp’s pointed and personal questions (which interrogate your entire relationship to the secular world), Rabbi Dovid Gurevich’s Russian stories and anecdotes to introduce his teachings, and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s optimal attitude. But for those whose interaction with students is less widespread, little is known about their personal styles and interests — to the detriment of the students with whom they could be interacting. One such figure is Hillel rabbinic intern Kerry Chaplin.
Each year, Hillel hosts two rabbinic interns, traditionally one from both the Conservative and Reform schools of thought, in order to train them and prepare them for life in the rabbinate. This year, Hillel hosted just one rabbinic intern (Chaplin) and one music director (Ari Kaplan), constituting a change in their outlook. Since staff intern positions change frequently, students have a limited amount of time during which they can easily form relationships (although most staff is interested in pursuing friendships after their appointment with Hillel at UCLA has ended). As students attending a large research university with an almost dizzying amount of opportunities, it is sometimes difficult to sort through the never-ending network of possibilities and to decide on what to engage with. For that reason, this article will seek to explore the under-appreciated role of rabbinic intern at Hillel through the perspective of Kerry Chaplin and her students. Although the year is coming to an end, it is never too late to open a new chapter in the book of human connections.
Chaplin hails from both La Cañada, Pasadena and Boca Raton, Florida, where she spent a considerable amount of time during her youth.
When asked about why she wanted to become a rabbi, Chaplin leaned back in her chair, contemplating her reply: “The things that a rabbi does I really enjoy doing. I love teaching, I love learning, I love being with people in vulnerable moments, I love feeling connected to G-d by being with people.”
Chaplin narrated her experience at Hillel thus far with a spark behind her dark brown eyes indicative of the passion she expressed for her position. Before answering each question, she took a breath and reflected for a moment about each response, working to sort out her musings into concrete language. Chaplin revealed that one of the aspects of her job that she enjoys most is Bruins B’Yachad, the egalitarian prayer group.
Margalit Wollner, a fourth-year Mathematics of Computation major, said that she attends Bruins B’Yachad almost weekly. “I really appreciate the community it is building and it’s a really friendly, fun minyan.”
Besides leading services, Kerry also enjoys doing some “learning to reinvigorate [her] understanding of the prayers” with a few students. Chaplin noted, “We’re just bringing ourselves to the learning and bringing what we see in the text, which not only reinvigorates a prayer service, but brings a prayer service to life and makes it our own experience. It also makes us a part of the larger Jewish narrative as well, since we’re reimagining classic litergy as handed down to us and bringing that liturgy to life. We can gain dramatic insights from those experiences, and then when we go to pray, we have new reasons to pray. I’m always finding new reasons to pray.”
Two of the students studying the prayer service are Wollner and Rebecca Bucher, a fourth-year English major. Wollner said, “Working our way through the four sections of the Shema in detail helped lead me to a new understanding of the purpose of prayer and mitzvot as they relate to the creation of Jewish interconnectedness.”
Although Chaplin is studying to become a rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, a Conservative school, she does not tie herself down to a specific denomination of Judaism. Chaplin admitted, “I don’t come from a background where guitar is used in prayer. And it’s a lot of fun to come to those types of services here, where Ari Kaplan is the music director and leads this amazing service with a guitar. He creates a vessel for the energy of prayer with the music that he’s leading. It just ends up being fun.”
Chaplin prefers to define herself much more ambiguously, reflecting a constantly shifting, analytic perspective of the world. “I met someone in Israel last year,” she relayed, folding her hands and staring off into the distance as she recalled the details of her story. “She told me she was participating in some kind of dialogue group between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. And as the group met for the first time, they went around their circle and shared about the four identities, sharing words that might define them. People went around the circle and said things like ‘woman,’ ‘Palestinian,’ ‘Jewish,’ ‘Israeli,’ etc. The woman told me that she was four relationships, not four identities.” At these words, Chaplin paused and looked down at her hands, using them to mold her meaning in the air. “I see myself in a relationship with myself, and in a relationship with other individuals, communities, and G-d. And I draw on her wisdom to understand that I see myself in relationships with Jewish movements and I don’t see myself as defined.”
Chaplin is dedicated to and passionate about her work at Hillel, so much so that she finds the ten hours of week that she is scheduled to work insufficient. She continually finds herself back at Hillel, talking to students. Some of her regular learning sessions are with Yvonne Winer, a second-year history major.
Winer said, “I tend to look at life through a very political lens, so it’s refreshing that Kerry always brings the conversation back to human interactions, spirituality, and personal morals. I especially love talking to her about Palestinian rights because it’s still a topic being grappled with in the Jewish community. Kerry makes me feel comfortable because she is never judgmental of people with different political beliefs.”
Another regular, fourth-year International Development Studies major Hannah Spero, relayed that Kerry “recognizes that a student’s Jewish identity intersects with so many other parts of who he or she is as a whole. Her ability to support students to build on those existing identities through Jewish learning makes her a wonderful presence at Hillel at UCLA.”
Chaplin is no stranger to asking deep or daunting questions — she does not shy away from difficult topics when learning with her students, but jumps right into whatever she is discussing.
“I believe the world was created for each and every moment,” Chaplin reflected. “That’s why it was created. We see that show up in halachah, in its interest in Jewish life, in its interest in what our clothes are made of, its interest in what kind of food we put in our bodies, its interest in how we pray… All of those are in the grand scheme of the universe, really really small details. But the details matter because in each and every moment the details have to matter, because all that there is, is now. […] In every moment it’s possible to feel that connection to G-d, to the universe, to each other. And we can do that for every moment. […] And maybe that’s the ultimate fulfillment of ‘Ye shall be holy’ [in Leviticus 19:2], because G-d is connected to everything.”
Chaplin connects a diverse array of disciplines in her life — both Jewish and non-Jewish. Her hobbies include practicing yoga (an undertaking that she hopes to combine with Jewish mediation and prayer) and playing the djembe, a drum which she is experimenting with including in prayer services.
Luckily for Hillel at UCLA, Chaplin is returning next year to continue her work with students — an endeavor that is close to her heart. As Spero said, “I consider her not only someone to continue learning with, but also a friend.”