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Posted at 8:16 PM ET, 09/27/2009

Trachtenberg: New Year’s Greetings 5770

By Valerie Strauss

Today's guest is Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor at George Washington University.

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Life on a university campus is about respect, tolerance, curiosity and understanding. It is about breaking bread as one explores differences and finds commonalities.

During the nearly four decades I served as an academic administrator, I was asked, time and again, what it was like to be a Jewish dean or a Jewish college president.

I always responded that I wasn’t a Jewish president: I was a president who was Jewish. I truly meant it when I said it. But equally true is that my entire life, both personal and professional, has been informed by being Jewish.

My mother would have said I had a “Jewish Nashuma” – a Yiddish soul. Having been Ivy-league educated, I would have talked about values. No matter which way you primarily characterize it – starting with generations of genetics or from years of your surroundings - the combination of the two inform how you comport yourself later in life.

But while the life-lessons I learned from family and faith surely are reflected in my conduct, I also have been deeply influenced by many people I have met over the years, by those whose judgment I care about and whose esteem I value. A prominent example is my roommate from law school, a quiet, self-effacing Congregationalist from Maine.

Before matriculating, I asked the Yale admissions office to match me with a roommate as different from me as they could.

I was expecting someone from a small country I had never heard about, hailing from a far-off continent, but they looked only 300 miles away and found Bill, and he was different.

He is the only man I ever knew who thought the “k” in knish was silent. Although our parents came from different worlds, and the neighborhoods of our childhood were far apart, we shared an initial strong allegiance: a willingness - almost an eagerness - to understand how we each arrived where we were the day we met – and how we could assist the other to reach the next stage of our lives.

In other words, we bonded.

On those occasions when I have to make a choice between right and easy, I add to my personal “gut” the little something extra that comes from wondering what Bill would say if asked for advice. His strong moral compass developed in the byways of Brunswick has entered the consciousness of this boy from the borough of Brooklyn.

We are our own true selves, as well as a collection of a thousand interactions with people and experiences that shape our ways: nature and nurture, as the social scientists say.

Inside me, the Yiddishkite is always there and I’m always aware of Torah. Yet I am also formed by seven decades of rubbing shoulders with classmates, shaking hands with officemates, eyeing strangers and smiling at neighbors.

People sometimes ask which professional accomplishment at GW warms my heart. There are many. One that brings me particular joy is the annual Iftar, or breakfast, that the university through the agency of Hillel hosts during Ramadan for the Islamic campus community. The Iftar is much like the meal Jews eat at the end of Yom Kippur, after a day of fasting.

Watching GW students from the Abrahmaic faiths and others, along with ambassadors from the Islamic nations, Israel and elsewhere, come together in Foggy Bottom to dine and give thanks for God’s bounty is a powerful experience. Given the quarrelsome world in which we live, seeing young people praying, celebrating and eating together gives me a sense of hope and promise.

Unlike Christmas, which comes each year on the same day in December, the Jewish High Holy days are calculated by lunar movements (much like the Islamic month of Ramadan) and it moves by several weeks each year. Rosh Hashana began at sundown on September 18, 2009 and Yom Kippur began Sunday at sundown. In 2010 Rosh Hashana will start on September 8th and the Kol Nidre service of Yom Kippur will fall on September 17th.

Year in and year out, however, what remains the same on a university campus is, klal yisrael, the coming together of the Jewish students, faculty and staff in prayer and reflection, and the parallel, hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, of non-Jews.

At holiday services one sees Jewish students happy to be with their co-religionists, but equally delighted to host classmates of all faiths and backgrounds as they greet a new year and reconcile with God their transgressions of the past year.

The Jewish New Year and the start of the school term always coincide. In the spirit of that union I offer a blessing. Let all of us gain strength from our inner spirit to be open to the world outside and let the New Year provide us with a willingness to teach and the wisdom to learn. L’Shana Tova. Happy New Year.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 27, 2009; 8:16 PM ET
Tags:  college life, stephen joel trachtenberg  
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