“My hands are outstretched”

The director of engagement of Columbia/Barnard Hillel on discovering Anne Frank’s diary, supporting students in their Jewish identities, and the role that the religion’s ancient values play in the world today

Aug 02 2019 | 11:00 AM

Jaimie Krass is the director of engagement at Columbia/Barnard Hillel, the school’s largest Jewish organization. She helps organize Shabbat dinners, learning cohorts, and philanthropic events to help students explore Jewish teachings and culture. But out of everything she does at Columbia, Krass is most proud of her role in helping students navigate the triumphs and challenges of college, as well as guiding them as they discover their Jewish identities. We sat down with Krass last week to discuss her strong feelings about hummus, ancient Hebrew text, and all things Jewish.

What is your earliest memory of feeling Jewish?

My earliest memory actually coincides with when I sort of learned I was Jewish. I didn’t grow up with any sense of Jewish heritage; there was no Jewish tradition in my home. My home was very secular. So I first developed that sense of intense connection to my own Jewishness when I was reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I smuggled it out of my sister’s room (she was reading it for school), and I think I was nine or ten years old. I totally fell in love with Anne Frank. I would literally say good night to her diary every night, and lay it beside my bed ... I must have pored through that book for over a week, and all I could think was, “I found my new favorite author. I can’t wait to read what else she’s written.” Because I didn’t know about the Holocaust yet. I hadn’t learned about the Holocaust. So when I got to the end, and learned what happened to her, what happened to her family, I was shell-shocked ... I couldn’t believe this amazing, amazing young woman with whom I identified so strongly was murdered. And so that kind of led me down this path of just discovering what it means to be Jewish, and how being Jewish is important to me, and why it’s important to live for that, and live proudly as a Jewish person.

You’ve now worked at Columbia/Barnard Hillel on the West Side for the last four years. What role does Columbia/Barnard Hillel play in students’ lives on campus?

I would say that our purpose is to support and empower and enrich our students and our students’ lives, as they navigate the challenges and the incredible triumphs of a college experience. And that takes on so many forms. That takes on the form of supporting their ritual Jewish lives, whether that’s Shabbat or holidays. That takes the form of incorporating them into their own Jewish learnings.

There’s a passage in the Torah that reminds me of this. When the Jewish people, when the Israelites were making their way into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan River, right? And before they crossed the Jordan River, they sent a few people to go and stand in the Jordan River to be able to help and support the Ark and the rest of the people who were going through to the other side. And that’s what I feel like my role is. I am standing in that river, and my hands are outstretched just in case someone needs a hand as they’re moving toward whatever their Promised Land is.

What does your role as director of engagement at Columbia/Barnard Hillel entail?

I’m obsessed with my work. In the Hillel world, there are two dimensions to Jewish engagement: there’s inward-facing, which focuses on leadership development for students who already feel a sense of connection to Jewish community on campus. And there’s the outward-facing dimension. So that’s my realm. The students that I work most closely with are students who maybe are on the peripheries of Jewish life, or are still figuring out what Jewishness means to them, what their Jewish identities look like. So I focus on building relationships with those students, and empowering them to take ownership of their Jewish experience on campus through leadership opportunities, through immersive experiences like Birthright and alternative spring break trips.

What is a story from a sacred Jewish text that speaks to you?

There’s a passage in Pirkei Avot that is my favorite. It’s really become a sort of compass for me throughout my own life and throughout my own Jewish journey. “Not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” And I feel like that is such a call to action, a call to engagement, and a call to involvement in the world, in what’s going on around you, in the lives of the people around you. That’s very much been a compass for me. And that continues to be a compass for me for in my own work in the Jewish world, as well as the things I do outside of my career.

Many people feel that the teachings and customs of an ancient religion like Judaism are out of date. How do you feel that Jewish teachings are relevant for modern day people?

What’s really timeless about [Judaism is] the values. The pursuit of justice that lies at the core of that. The sense of accountability and responsibility when it comes to your relationship with your neighbor, and with the people around you. I think the values of empathy, of humanity, of seeing that humanity ... there’s actually another phrase, “Let the honor of your neighbor be as dear to you as your own.” That’s a value that especially today as we’re seeing what’s going on at the border, and as we’re seeing what’s going on in terms of immigrants’ rights, I think this is very much a value that resonates and holds a lot of truth today. That the honor of our friends, that the honor of the people around us, that we should hold that as dearly as we hold our own.

Bagels or Hamentashen?

Bagels. 100 percent.

Falafel or hummus?

(Gasps) Oooh! That’s a painful one! Hummus. There’s just more you can do with it.

On a scale from one to 10, how much do you love Natalie Portman?

Eleven. Are you asking me that as a Jew or as a lesbian? Because the answer is eleven for both.

This interview has been edited and condensed.