Hillel Hayom newsletter
Rabbi Danielle Stillman
Rabbi Danielle Stillman

Reflections from Rabbi Danielle

Shmita and Passover—Taking a Break from the Routine

As many of you know, this Jewish year of 5782 is a shmita, or sabbatical year, in the Jewish calendar. The Torah declares that every seventh year shall be a year of rest for the land, of reset for the economy, and of refocusing on the needs of the most vulnerable in society. Building on this ancient tradition today, shmita is a way to look closely at how we grow our food and run our food systems and how we participate in an economy that does not allow rest for very many. It is a time to take a deep look—both inward and outward—at the effects of our actions on ourselves, those close to us, and those very far away.

Passover can also be seen as a mini-shmita moment that occurs each year. It is a week of giving up leavened food, of doing things differently, of asking why we do the things we do. “Why is this night different from other nights?” begins the four questions that are asked by the youngest participant at the seder. For those of us who observe dietary restrictions during the whole week of Passover, we know how much consciousness we must bring to our eating during this week. And for those cultivating an awareness of shmita this whole year, it is a similar invitation to take a step back, to see what we can change in our patterns of consumption and societal relations. Patterns that may not be working well for anyone, that we feel stuck in, may suddenly be seen in a different light. We learn from these experiences that we can change. Not surprisingly, this change, this question asking, is often prompted by the youngest among us. This is something that I see every day in my work with college-aged students.

And now some exciting news along the theme of sabbaticals! For the upcoming academic year, my family and I will be living in Jerusalem while I take a personal leave. This will give all of us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the rhythms of the Jewish year. For me, it will also be an opportunity to learn about and connect with different dialogue projects and approaches that are taking place between Israelis and Palestinians. I hope to bring wisdom and experience from these approaches back to campus. We plan to hire an interim Jewish chaplain to fill my position while I am gone, and I am excited to see what new energy they will bring with them to this work.

What we’ve been up to at Midd this year

While we are still riding the waves that COVID throws at us, this year has seen less restrictions than last. We have been gathering more normally, been singing together during prayer services, and for most of fall and starting again since spring break, been able to cook and eat together for Shabbat and Holidays. Here are some of the highlights of this year: 15 students went on a wonderful off-campus retreat this past fall, which Joshua Glucksman ’25 writes about for Hillel HaYom. Over January term we partnered with the Feminist Resource Center at Chellis House, Hirschfield International Film Series, and the Holocaust Film Fund to present the short documentary Petit Rat and a Q&A with the directors for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. You can read more about the film in an article by Halsey Smith ’23, who writes about it in the GSFS/Chellis House Spring 2022 Newsletter.

The highlight of the spring semester so far was certainly Purim. Julia Levin ’24 wrote, produced, and directed an amazing telling of the Purim story to Broadway show tunes. For the remainder of spring semester, we are looking forward to the Passover Seders, a collaborative program that is in the works on shmita with the New Perennials Project and Franklin Environmental Center, and more. There is also a working group on antisemitism that has formed at the College. The aim of the group is to educate people about antisemitism and build capacity to address it when it arises. Learn more about that work, along with a statement by the group, on Middlebury’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion web page.

Hillel’s Fall Retreat

Middlebury students and Rabbi Stillman prepare to read from the Torah.
Middlebury students and Rabbi Stillman prepare to read from the Torah.

This past fall, after a two-year hiatus, Hillel resumed its tradition of a Shabbat retreat at Silver Bay YMCA on Lake George. Here, Joshua Glucksman ’25 reflects on his time away with Hillel.

What made this retreat so meaningful was a Shabbat with Hillel. I was able to spend a complete Shabbat (Torah service, Havdalah, and a lot of text study) with a small group of people who otherwise I just knew from small talk once a week on Friday nights. Making friends is hard, and getting past small talk is even harder. Staying up late into the night and really getting to know a few people was the perfect way to make bonds that are currently some of my strongest.

Here are two important moments.

The first was on Saturday when we prayed the Amidah silent prayer outside. One of my favorite parts about this series of blessings, the climax of any prayer service, is that it is done almost silently and yet surrounded by others. I think that this prayer serves as a good metaphor for the Jewish faith: there is an aspect of pure individual connection with an almighty Being, and there is also a communal, physical connectedness. We decided to do this prayer, the first time doing it on Shabbat morning this semester, outside. While standing in a cluster around the building we were using, sun shining, birds chirping, wind whipping around (really, it couldn’t be more cliché), this prayer felt right. I was standing near a babbling brook and had to hold onto my siddur with all my might to make sure the pages wouldn’t flip as I concentrated on the words. If there is any prayer experience that I will remember from this semester, it will be that. For those 10 minutes, something, I don’t know what, was channeled from the dozen individuals into something greater than their sum parts.

The second activity that left a lasting impression on me was something taken right out of any summer camp counselor’s toolbox: an activity involving words written on big pieces of paper laid on the floor and discussed. In this case, we were talking about what different aspects of Judaism mean to us: whether religious, spiritual, cultural, or just Jewish. We each got little slips of paper with different facets of modern Jewish living, from fasting on Yom Kippur to eating bagels. Everyone got up and began to place each slip into one of the larger categories, essentially an exercise challenging us all to think about why we do the certain Jewish things we do, if we do them at all.

I really would love to find some overarching and succinct takeaway from the results of this activity, but I think the beautiful part is that there weren’t any. I was exposed to some worldviews about Judaism and some whys that I had never heard or thought about before: people going to political protests for religious reasons, people fasting and praying for cultural reasons. Close to the entire range of Jewish ideology was laid out in a smorgasbord of paper slips on the floor. The takeaway that I got from this activity was that people do Jewish things for quite literally hundreds of different reasons, but either way, it had brought over a dozen Middlebury students out to the middle of nowhere New York for a Shabbat. And that means something.

What does it mean? I didn’t promise an answer. But I know it must mean something. The Torah portion that we studied and read from that Saturday was Vayetzei, where the famous divine command “ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפונה ונגבה” (“and you shall spread out west, east, north, and south”) was given to Yaakov. As a lover of stretched interpretations of the weekly Torah portion, I really do believe that if some greater Being, a Jewish G-d to some, had a board with little light bulbs around the world to indicate where light and joy were being spread, that Being must have been pleasantly surprised to see the light flickering that Shabbat in a small YMCA in Silver Bay, New York.

Middlebury Infused with Hebrew Culture

This summer will mark the fifth year that Professor of Hebrew Michal Strier has traveled from her home in Arad, a small city in southern Israel, to teach Hebrew to master’s and DML students at the Middlebury Language Schools. But 2021–22 marks the first time she has taught at Middlebury during the regular academic year. We caught up with her recently to talk about her thoughts on Middlebury and Israel and education.

What have you been teaching this school year?

This year, I taught mostly 200-level Hebrew classes, and a few students in 101 and 102 classes. I also taught someone who is high-level in Hebrew, but it was an independent study, just her and me. Also, starting in J-term, I began leading a Hebrew Club on Monday afternoons for whoever wanted it, no matter the level. We started with four students, and now we have six. It’s not obligatory. They just want to learn Hebrew and talk a little Hebrew and do things in Hebrew. And usually I bring cookies and cakes for them.

Is that an extra incentive to get students to drop in?

Well, I like to bake, so I need someone to eat it. My husband and I, we can’t eat everything!

How did you get into teaching?

My husband and I established a very unique school 20-something years ago in Arad, where I grew up: we opened a free democratic school called Kedem. It belongs to a string of democratic schools. It’s a school for children from the age of three till the end of high school. It’s like a family, it’s multiage, and you don’t learn by classes. The children decide what they learn, how they learn, with whom they learn.

We opened the school in 2000. We just wanted a school for our children where they would love to learn, where they would love to go to school. When we look back, we see that we actually established a community, like a kibbutz. I didn’t have the patience to wait for someone else to do it, and no one else wanted to. We decided there was no time, so we did it.

How does the democratic school model work?

There are rules. The children make decisions together with the community—parents are also invited. Every week there’s a parliament. People suggest rules and everyone votes about it and talks about it. Even children from kindergarten can speak at the parliament and suggest rules. It’s from very simple daily stuff to voting on the budget. It’s everything except what to learn or not to learn, because everyone can learn everything.

The model started in Poland with Janusz Korczak, a Jewish educator and doctor and journalist. One of his famous sayings was “The children have a right to die.” He didn’t mean it in a macabre way; he meant for adults to stop telling children “Don’t do this, don’t do that, because you might die.” So they climbed trees and did whatever they wanted.

A. S. Neill did something similar in the 1920s in England. His school is alive and kicking today. If you search for “Summerhill” on YouTube, you’ll find lots of movies about it.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

I never wanted to be teacher. I wanted to be a graphic artist. But for my children, when we started this school, I decided I had to have at least a teaching certificate. I studied intensely to get three years of study into two years.

I was the principal of the school when we started it, and for about eight years after that. After I stepped aside, I went on teaching part time, and I started working at Kaye College for Academic Education, a training college. There, I worked at a center that tried to help communities and educators establish youth programs for citizenship and involvement in the community. I finished my master’s in public administration and nonprofit management at Ben-Gurion University. I kept working in the college because it was nice. Also, they needed someone to deal with their website and social media. I said, “Okay, for a few months until you find someone.”

I have an idea where this is going.

[Laughing] Yeah, that lasted for a long time, many years. I also helped with their fundraising, something I did for the democratic school. And I learned for my fun, but for them too, how to build websites, and they used my graphic skills.

What was Kaye College like?

It’s in Beersheba, in the south of Israel. What’s interesting is there are lots of Bedouin settlements in the south. Even in Arad there are Bedouins and there are Muslims and there are Jews and there are Christians. We have refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. And in this college, it was almost half Bedouins. It was a great existence, because you could see how coexistence really works on a daily basis. Even the language of the teachers in the staff room, you’d hear Arabic or Bedouin teachers speaking among themselves in Arabic with Hebrew words in it. And you’d hear the Jews, the Israelis, the non-Arabic teachers speaking Hebrew among themselves, and you’d hear Arabic in it. All the languages were mixed.

Did you go beyond your MA?

Yes, I did my PhD, also at Ben-Gurion University. I got my doctorate in the field of political socialization. It’s not political in the sense of political parties. It’s about being aware and involved and caring and being part of the democratic system. What I was interested in, because of the democratic school, was trust. Trust the children, trust the parents, trust the teachers, and you trust them to make very important decisions, and you trust them to take care of themselves, but you also trust them to call you if they need help.

Rabbi Danielle said you come from a very creative family.

I used to paint in oils and stuff like that. Before I became a teacher I studied graphic design. My mom was a teacher, but she was also a graduate of Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem. She taught me calligraphy and drawing. Now my passion is animation.

My sister is an artist. She has taught beginning Hebrew at the Language Schools, and she taught art to everyone. My daughter is a pastry chef, and my son is a musician. I’m not modest about it: my son is a very good musician. He plays any instrument you can think of. He plays with the most famous band in Israel, Hadag Nahash.

What is your impression of Vermont?

I love Middlebury. Middlebury is like arriving to quiet and peace, and it’s an amazing, beautiful place, with very friendly people. We come from the desert, beautiful desert. But here everything is green and there’s lots of water. It’s amazing. So beautiful. I can’t stop taking pictures.

What did you think of our long Vermont winter?

It wasn’t long for me. I’m like a child, you know. I look at the snow and I’m like, wow, it’s so beautiful. And every snow is different, and it’s amazing. It’s so beautiful.

People warned me about the cold. I said, “What can I do? I’ll dress warmer.” And I realized it’s actually colder for me in Israel, because there I don’t have the right clothing or the right boots. And our houses aren’t warm enough over there. But on the other hand, in the summer in Israel, everyone has air conditioning. Here, it’s really difficult because there isn’t much air conditioning. And the mosquitoes are the worst.

Are you doing any other extracurriculars besides the Monday Hebrew Club?

Yes. I did an art class, because students asked for it. And I did calligraphy once. We are always talking about Israel during these classes, so now we’ve started kind of a series of Zoom lectures on different subjects in Israeli society. People are always talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there’s no need for me to do that too. I try to talk about some other things that are in Israel. You know, it’s not only the conflict.

And I always invite students to my home, because my husband is an amazing cook. So when they feel in need of a home, I invite students to come over for dinner or breakfast or lunch or a cake. They asked how to do falafel and pita and hummus, so we’re doing that tomorrow. And we’re starting something on Thursdays—not only for the Hillel students but for whoever wants to join. We’ll meet and we’ll just talk or see movies and talk about Israeli art and Israeli music and any questions that come to mind concerning Israel. And not necessarily in Hebrew.

If people from Hillel or people who have connections to Middlebury and to the College and to the town have ideas they think I can help with concerning Hebrew and Israel and art, then they’re invited to approach me. I’m not formal. Totally not formal. And I love new ideas.

It has been fascinating talking to you. Your curiosity and love of learning are palpable.

One of my mother’s friends, she’s a very funny old lady, once she told me, “A good day is a day that you learned something new, you laughed, and you did something good for someone else.” And I don’t know why it stuck in my head, but whenever that happens, I say, OK, I can check that off. [Laughing.] I have to learn things all the time; the day that I don’t learn something new is a really boring day.


The Hillel Hayom is an annual newsletter published each fall to highlight Jewish life at Middlebury, including reflections on the times, lecture and event coverage, and the sights and sounds of students, staff, and faculty.

Enjoy current and past issues.

Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life
46 South Street
Middlebury, VT 05753