Future priest and rabbi follow unconventional paths

by Judith Phillips and Richard Lazarus | 4/2/03 5:00am

For some, the term "keeping the faith" means little more than the 2000 comedy with Ben Stiller and Edward Norton. For others, however, keeping the faith is both a career path and a life choice.

Nicole Leiser '02 and Chris Ryan '04 are among the latter.

The Rabbi

Leiser is currently the program director at Dartmouth Hillel, but will attend Hebrew Union College starting in July. HUC is a rabbinical school for the Reform movement of Judaism.

Leiser's decision to attend HUC resulted from a suggestion by the Dartmouth Hillel Rabbi Edward Boraz. Leiser expressed to the Rabbi her frustration at her inability to find a career path that would allow her to explore in a non-research fashion "how children develop a sense of morals.

"The Rabbi suggested I try rabbinical school and a light bulb went off in my head."

Leiser had considered graduate studies in child development, but thought that "morality and spirituality are often related, that they can overlap." She thus decided to apply to HUC.

Since 1972, HUC, which has four campuses, has ordained 392 female rabbis. According to Leiser, "the application process is really rigorous. Like most other graduate schools, HUC required two essays. They also look at GPA. You have to take the GRE and they require six recommendations. And then there's psychological testing, an interview and a Hebrew proficiency test."

HUC offers many courses of study, including those on Jewish text, history and philosophy. It also offers courses pertaining to the more practical, interactive side of rabbinics including counseling and how to lead services.

Leiser was very involved with Jewish life at Dartmouth. A member of Hillel, she also taught at a local Hebrew School and tutored adolescents for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

In addition to her duties as Hillel's programming director, she is also currently the assistant director of the Upper Valley Jewish Community Center.

Leiser will spend six years at HUC. Five of those years will be devoted to procuring her ordination, and in the sixth year she will study for a master's degree in education.

Whatever Leiser does with her new degree when she graduates from HUC will involve children.

A psychology major and education minor at Dartmouth, she and her family always thought that she would become a child therapist.

Although she is not sure where she will work, she said that it is possible that she will work as the rabbi for a synagogue, a Jewish day school, or a Jewish community center, providing that she could work extensively with children.

Leiser noted that "when you become a rabbi or a priest or a minister, it's not just a day job. It's a life choice. My decision to become a rabbi is going to affect the rest of my life. When you're walking down the street, even if you're not at work, you're still the rabbi. And I think that's true for all clergy."

The Priest

Chris Ryan '04 has always been a practicing Roman Catholic, but it took coming to Dartmouth to make him feel that he was being called to be a priest.

After Dartmouth, Ryan will spend a few years with others who wish to become Catholic priests at a seminary as a novitiate, a period he said was for "formation and study" of both one's self and Catholic dogma.

If he is approved by a bishop, he will become a priest. Where he goes from there, whether to try to relieve the burden of the poor as a Jesuit or to live a simple life as a chaplain, he does not yet know.

So why a priest? "As I understand it, being a priest has a different quality than other parts of the Catholic faith," he said. Becoming a priest means giving yourself to God, he explained.

Ryan grew up going to mass every week with his family and attended a Jesuit high school, but it was approaching his faith in a new way at Dartmouth that led him to understand the direction he wanted to take his life.

"I feel that this is the place where my faith and practice have expanded more than at any point before in my life," said Ryan. "For the first time, I had to figure out on my own how to live my faith."

Having always been surrounded by religion, Ryan had to decide for himself how he wanted to involve other Catholics -- and his own faith -- in his life.

Ryan found his answer. At Dartmouth, he is highly involved in Aquinas House, the Catholic organization on campus whose activities range from study and prayer to Super Bowl parties, according to Ryan.

Faith has become more a part of his life as well -- for example, while he attended mass only once a week at home, he now attends almost every day.

Ryan admits that a priestly life is quite a change from the life of a student at Dartmouth, although he said he has found himself comfortable with religion permeating his life.

He is also unsure of some of the details of what he will go through to become a priest or what he wants his duties to be afterwards, but Ryan said that talking about how he wants to approach his life helps him to understand it each time.

Ultimately, Ryan recommends that those choosing a career after graduation "reflect on their own hearts and feelings" to choose "the activities, not only that they love, but that seem to love them back."