Rabbi Gil Steinlauf had one of those rare moments in life—when an opportunity arises that seems like it was bashert, just clearly meant to be.
That moment came when the job as executive director and Jewish chaplain at the Center for Jewish Life-Princeton Hillel became available. After all, he attended the university as an undergraduate student with plans to study international relations, go on to law school and work in Washington. But inspired by Hillel and the university’s Jewish studies faculty, he ultimately decided to instead enter the rabbinate.
“I was thunderstruck,” said Rabbi Steinlauf. “It was one of the moments when it became clear that it was the right thing. It is very exciting and meaningful to be returning to Princeton, especially in this role. It’s like returning home.”
He took over his position July 1 from Rabbi Julie Roth, who left after 17 years to assume the pulpit of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a Conservative congregation in Montclair.
Rabbi Steinlauf credited the university with “having this unique ability to allow students to follow their interests and passions, and for me I found out what it means to be Jewish.”
An academic interest in history was nourished in the Department of Near Eastern Studies where he ended up studying Jewish history while also becoming more involved with Hillel, being among the students asked to offer ideas to famed architect Robert A.M. Stern, who was then designing the current Center for Jewish Life. Rabbi Steinlauf shifted gears from law and decided to get a doctorate in Jewish history, but others around him at Princeton told him they thought he would make a great rabbi. Spurred on by that encouragement, he turned to Hillel’s then-director, Rabbi Edward Feld, for career advice. His guidance was somewhat unexpected but sage: Go to Israel and study in yeshiva before making a decision.
Rabbi Steinlauf returned firm in his decision to be a spiritual leader thanks to the guidance, experiences and education of his college years. “Princeton figured both personally and professionally in what I became,” he said.
The rabbi was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and previously served 10 years as senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, a 140-year-old synagogue in Washington D.C. that counted among its approximately 1,600 members U.S. Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, prominent leaders and those in the media. It was the perfect setting to prepare for a leadership role at Hillel.
“I felt like the mayor of a large city,” said Rabbi Steinlauf. “It was a very exciting place to be. There were many different groups under one roof all of whom were different flavors of Conservative. Some were more traditional, some less. It was so large it felt like a confederation of minyanim. When I arrived there was a lot of friction, and my role was to bring those factions together. My vision was renewal.”
As part of that vision, one of the sanctuaries in the center of the synagogue was ripped out and replaced with a beit midrash, bringing people together to study Torah chavruta-style and a place where community could come together to discuss ideas in a “very Hilled-like” setting with a coffee bar and comfortable chairs.
“It was very successful,” said Rabbi Steinlauf, who also would go on to found the Jewish Teen Leadership Institute to bring teens into dialogue with world leaders and reflect on the encounters through Torah study, and the Hineni Fellowship for LGTBQ Jews to train and engage them for leadership in the Jewish community. He most recently served as rabbi at Congregation Kol Shalom in Rockville, Maryland.
“Hillel is a configuration of sometimes very divergent students, where sometimes faculty and even alumni come representing different flavors of Judaism, so I hope to make the Center for Jewish Life a place to celebrate the different constituencies who call it home,” noted Rabbi Steinlauf.
“Given the reality of our times and with that reality constantly weighing on our constituents I want to make it a place where we can have conversations about our differences and celebrate our shared core Jewish values that have always been celebrated for centuries across different lines. That is how we have always studied Torah: by discussing its meaning and seeing the differences from all sides.”
For now Rabbi Steinlauf has been actively working with Hillel’s professional staff but said that “the real nachas” has come from the students themselves. Because Hillel programming is often student-driven, there are innovative programs to engage Asian Jews and Latinx Jews as well as one where students try to involve friends in Jewish programming by taking them to coffee and promoting Hillel. The result is 400 students actively involved in the Center for Jewish Life, while “an incredibly high” 82% of all Jewish students on campus are engaged with Hillel.
“We have deeply immersive programs that I hope to expand,” he said, but the lead will come from the students themselves.
“They are so innovative and creative and come up with missions and visions for what they want —and when they come together for Shabbat there is so much ruach,” he said. “As a former congregational rabbi where there is a lot of concern about the future of institutional Judaism, it brings me a lot of nachas to see such ruach from these young, future Jewish leaders who have so far consistently exceeded my expectations.”
So much so that the rabbi has developed another side occupation: “I joke that I’m a professional nachas shepper.”
By Debra Rubin