Q&A with Rabbi Edward Boraz

by Maria Harrast | 2/21/18 2:30am

Rabbi Edward Boraz has served as the rabbi for both the Dartmouth and the Upper Valley Jewish Community congregations for the past 20 years. He is the executive director of Dartmouth Hillel and runs Project Preservation, an annual service trip to restore Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe. After studying psychology and earning a law degree at Loyola University in Chicago, he applied his studies towards his rabbinical practices. Boraz will be stepping down from his positions at Dartmouth and in the Upper Valley Area on July 1 to serve as the rabbi of a small congregation in Wausau, Wisconsin.

When did you first know you wanted to become a rabbi?

EB: I have always been very dedicated to my religious community. I didn’t really know about becoming a rabbi, but several meaningful experiences, such as my bar mitzvah, learning in a synagogue setting and being a Torah leader, were all very formative. I was always connected to the Jewish community, particularly to temple or synagogue life, even throughout college and in my adult life. I taught a confirmation program for students, and I continued to work with students who were studying for their bar or bat mitzvah even as I was studying law. When I was in college, I was working in a nursing home as an activities therapist and activities director, and part of my responsibilities were to lead Sabbath services and high holiday services. I had this background, but that didn’t translate into being a rabbi.

What translated into being a rabbi was through a profound experience when I was 36 and practicing law. A very dear friend of mine lost his life in a tragic automobile accident — he was hit by a drunk driver. That led me to think about the meaning of my life and what I wanted to do going forward. I was in a position where I could think about what my life would mean going forward, and I recognized that Judaism was a very constant and fulfilling part of my life. The rabbi at my community said to me that I would’ve been a good rabbi and that I should’ve been a rabbi, and other people were coming up to me during this transition period and saying similar things. That led me on this journey to explore becoming a rabbi, and things really fell into place.

What defines your general approach as a rabbi, and how might it differ when you’re working specifically with Dartmouth students?

EB: It’s amazing how the things that influence you when you are young stay with you. I majored in psychology when I was in college. I was heavily influenced by the work of Carl Rogers, who developed a theory called client-centered therapy. Rogers observed that many people have it within themselves to transcend, and the role of the therapist is really not to view the person as sick but to have the tools themselves to overcome the things that are bothering the person. The role of the therapist is to be supportive, to provide empathy and feedback, perhaps pick up on things that the client may not be hearing. Through that process, the person could in fact transcend.

That idea stayed with me, and I would say that one of the core principles of my rabbinate is that religion is here to help people. While it is true there is a commandment component, at the end of the day, religion is there to help people enjoy life and to lead a meaningful life. It’s for them to work that out for themselves. Here at Dartmouth, that’s what I’ve tried to do — to be knowledgeable and to be helpful. For the students here, this is their Hillel. The students here at the Hillel and at the Upper Valley Jewish Community really do have the skills within themselves to figure out the kind of Jewish community they want to create. It’s been a student-centered Hillel, borrowing that from Rogers, and that’s been my approach.

What is a project that you are either currently working on or have worked on in the past that you are most proud of?

EB: Two things come to mind. What people know me well for is Project Preservation. Every year we have been able to make these trips to engage in a very serious study of the Holocaust, really about genocide, and we welcome a diverse group. We really want a diverse group to come and share each group’s suffering and relationship as it were to genocide. We explore the question of how could a country as advanced as Germany, even given their economic struggles that they had, how could they engage in something like this in Western civilization? We explore that question in 10 weeks, and we go to Auschwitz and then a Jewish cemetery, because many of these cemeteries are certainly neglected. We respond to the loss by doing the work that would’ve been done had these people not been sent to gas chambers and killed in killing fields. That’s really a team effort, and some alumni have certainly been more than incredibly generous in their support.

I’m also proud of the one-on-one work I’ve done with students. Dartmouth is a very rigorous place and the students take their studies very seriously. I have a great deal of respect for them. I don’t worry about the future of Judaism and I don’t worry about the future of the country. So many of these students who are coming out of this are really good people, and they care not only about the Jewish community, but they also care about the world.

What are your plans after Dartmouth, and why are you deciding to step down?

EB: The only reason I’m stepping down is because each institution has aspirations to grow, and each of them needs a full-time rabbi. Dartmouth is an incredibly complex environment, and Jewish students here really need their own rabbi. I think the local Jewish community, which is also wonderful, needs their own rabbi. The structure in which I was hired — we’ve outgrown it. I thought that for them to really take on the challenges that are presented would require me first to step down. They needed to evaluate what they would be looking for in a new rabbi going forward. I think with some new energy and some new thoughts and ideas that it will continue to grow. It will primarily grow because of the nature of the communities and the commitments that each has towards growth and developing a caring community.

Do you have plans to continue as a rabbi in the future?

EB: Yes, I’ve accepted a position in Wisconsin. I’m going to be moving to the Midwest, and it’s a small, very warm, very vibrant congregation. I’ve always wanted to serve in a reform congregation because that’s where I got my training. Part of the reason for the reform movement is that when the rabbis graduate, they go and serve reform congregations, and I’ve never done that. I’m very excited for this new chapter.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

EB: I just wish all the best for Dartmouth College Hillel. Every one of the College presidents whom I’ve had the pleasure to serve under has just been really wonderful in terms of support for Jewish life, particularly President James Wright, who was inaugurated when I first came here. President Wright was always kind of in my consciousness because he was always so calm and so balanced. Then President Jim Kim really encouraged us to get to the next level, to always improve, and fortunately for him and for the world, he left to become the president of the World Bank. President Phil Hanlon is a very, very good man and doing a good job under difficult times. It’s been an honor to serve under him and under the previous presidents, in addition to the former deans of the Tuck Foundation and now under the current chaplain and dean of the Tucker Center.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.