Coming of age in Broomall, Pa., Ira Blum, director of Jewish student life at Penn Hillel, was raised by parents who were both deeply engaged Jewish communal workers. His father, for more than a quarter-century, has been a congregational rabbi in the suburbs, and his mother has worked at a multitude of programs and institutions that promote and support Jewish community life, from teaching at a Jewish day school, to working at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, to coordinating Holocaust education in area high schools.
“I grew up in an environment where [Jewish communal life] was very much the norm for me,” he says, “being in spaces where being comfortable, literate, and proud of your Judaism was something to be celebrated.”
Blum, who received his bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Muhlenberg College, and his master’s degrees from the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, says the greater part of his educational experience in his formative years, especially in Jewish education, was in pluralistic environments.
“I grew up in a more liberal, egalitarian Jewish community, but I would go to school with some orthodox students and some secular Jewish students,” he says.
He says his exposure to diversified Jewish thought, practice, and character made Penn Hillel a natural fit.
“We are inclusive and open to all streams and all expressions of Jewish identity,” says Blum. “We’re not trying to direct anyone toward a specific endpoint in terms of becoming more observant or taking on certain religious traditions or practices. We’re really here to provide the human resources to help direct people on their own path.”
The Current sat down with Blum—who is also a certified Anti-Violence Advocate from the Penn Women’s Center, and completed Counseling and Psychological Services’ I CARE Training and the LGBT Center’s SafeZone training—in his office at Steinhardt Hall to discuss his work at Penn Hillel, serving the University’s heterogeneous Jewish community, how students engage with Jewish life on campus, and why he is so fascinated by Bob Dylan.
What are some of your job responsibilities?
I advise a lot of the student leadership. We literally have hundreds of student leaders for all of these communities: religious communities, social justice and community service opportunities, cultural initiatives like a cappella and theater, and educational offerings. I also am responsible for developing and advising different immersive experiences, including travel. All the trips that we do are built on a fellowship model, meaning we don’t just recruit students and then they go on a trip over winter break or spring break and that’s it. There is a community-building aspect. We journey to Israel, where students study at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a pluralist think tank devoted to research and teaching around Jewish identity, the complexities of Israel, and the American-Jewish relationship to Israel. We have Birthright. We have an interfaith and interethnic trip to Rwanda. While students are sharing their own faith stories, they’re also exploring the history of Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide. We have a trip that we do with the Greenfield Intercultural Center and the African-American Resource Center that explores black and Jewish relations in the Civil Rights Movement. A new fellowship launched last year with student leadership that travels to Poland. Whereas a lot of Jewish trips to Poland focus deeply on visiting Holocaust sites and engaging with that side of the history and narrative of Poland, this experience does that and more. It looks at about a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland that preceded the Holocaust. It also connects students with Jewish life in Poland today.
Obviously Jewish people are not monolithic, and are very diverse culturally and religiously. How do you serve the many different types of Jewish students at Penn?
Often one at a time. One of the things that I enjoy most is the opportunity to engage in what we call coffee dates. They are one-on-one conversations with students. We have the privilege of meeting students for coffee, or ice cream, or gelato. While it often starts as kind of a surface conversation, such as catching up on what students did over the summer and updates on internships, jobs, and career paths, it turns into a deeper conversational space where students can just be honest and human about themselves in ways that they don’t necessarily get to be in the rest of their day-to-day lives. One reason for this is that as Hillel staff, we don’t fit the normal mold in terms of players in students’ lives. We’re not professors; we’re not parents; we’re not peers. I think of myself as an educator and an adviser to students, so the spaces that we create are, therefore, not formal, they’re not planned or structured. It’s really about what the students are hungry for, not just in terms of their material appetite, but their spiritual hunger. They’re looking to explore new Jewish experiences and opportunities, or they just want to learn something meaningful, or be challenged to think more personally and deeply about their own selves, and what their ambitions are in terms of growing into Jewish adulthood.
We also very much are engaged with the cultural life on campus because the majority of Jewish students engage with their Judaism in a cultural capacity and not a religious one.
Can you talk a little bit about how that manifests?
One of the biggest events that we have every week is Shabbat dinner. It’s not just another dinner in another Penn dining hall, it’s an experience that students have grown up sharing with their families and with their friends nearly every week, and there’s something meaningful and nostalgic about that that creates a different space for them. Students will participate in that event or experience out of a religious sense of obligation or commitment, but many others participate for entirely different reasons, such as the cultural attachment that they have to the opportunity to share social fellowship with friends, recover from the week’s burdens, and to enjoy familiar cultural Jewish foods. Matzo ball soup here is really awesome. A lot of students come to Penn and expect the Jewish experience to be modeled in the same way that it was for them growing up, which is built in a lot of ways on religious terms, but Judaism is often so much a cultural establishment for Jewish students that there are many ways that students can engage with Jewish life on campus. We have religious identity and expression. We have egalitarian communities where students can sit in a coed atmosphere. We have a very strong and thriving orthodox community that provides social and cultural experiences, and also very high quality, consistent religious prayer and worship opportunities. And for other students, their entire Jewish experience on campus, which is completely meaningful to them, is accessed through community service and social justice by attending marches and rallies, and fundraising for students in need in West Philadelphia, or by tutoring, et cetera.
Do you come across students who describe themselves as atheist Jews?
Some students will say they’re atheist or agnostic, but secular is also a popular term. Among surveys or in conversations as we’re getting to know Jewish students, often the language is, ‘I’m just Jewish,’ and they kind of leave it at that, but there’s an opportunity to probe deeper and get at what’s really going on in that self-assigned label.
While an undergrad, you did your senior thesis on how Bob Dylan used mystical and esoteric constructs to promote himself as a pop culture icon. How did you become interested in Bob Dylan?
I discovered Dylan in high school while carpooling to school. Some classmates of mine and parents of friends of mine would play his music and I slowly got into it. In college, I just found it so fascinating. Rolling Stone has written so much about him and asked him so many interesting questions, and he has this incredible way of trying to basically unsay everything that he says. His lyrics are published; they’re a canon of poetry. He writes so much and he says so much, and has so much to convey to people, and when he’s asked, ‘What do you mean when you’re talking about this?’ He’ll so frequently back off from it and say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘It’s not what you think.’ I just found it to be really interesting. Throughout the decades of his music and catalogue, he would keep trying new kinds of music. He started with folk music, and then turned to folk rock. Then he tried to distance himself from the label of being a folk artist. Then he became a born-again Christian for about a decade, and so much of his music was deep with biblical references and imagery, and it was incredible. Then he gave that up and backed away from that. There are stories of him occasionally popping up and visiting Synagogues for Jewish holidays. He’ll just appear for the reading of the Torah. During the last few years, he has sung covers of songs. There’s an album of him singing Christmas carols and an album of him singing Frank Sinatra songs. What other musical artist does all of this stuff and is still compelling?