Rabbi Eric Abbott grew up in a “Christmas-Chanukah-type household” in Rhode Island, where his family lit Chanukah candles and had a Christmas tree. His mother was Jewish, and his father wasn’t. They didn’t really go to either a synagogue or a church.
That changed after Abbott’s grandparents died. His family started going to a synagogue and his father converted to Judaism. By the time he was in high school, Abbott knew he wanted to be a rabbi.
With an ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Abbott, 32, is a Washington resident and senior Jewish educator at Hopkins Hillel. He is married to Rabbi Eliana Fischel, assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
What do you think is different about working at a Hillel from working in a synagogue?
Like any rabbi, I teach. Like any rabbi, I offer pastoral care. Like any rabbi, I lead worship and ritual and all that. [There are] a couple of key differences. One is that these are, for the most part, I’ll say, 17-23-year-old age demographic. They’re in a stage of life where they’re really questioning who they are, what it means to live in this world, to live in this country, in a way that younger students are not, in a way that older adults often have figured out. Of course, everyone has questions, but it’s not quite the same. According to many developmental psychologists, they’re still adolescents, so they’re still developing and figuring that out. It’s really a chance for me to meet them and explore that together.
I like Hopkins Hillel especially because we are a very student-driven organization. Every congregation, every Hillel has its lay leadership, its board, whatever it may be, but we really try to meet students and get to know them and find out what interests them and help them make that into something more.
What are some of the programs or initiatives that you specifically do at Hopkins Hillel?
The highlight of my week is the Jewish Learning Fellowship. Hillel International created this program, and it’s on countless campuses across the country, but I really made it my own at Hopkins Hillel by adjusting the lessons to bring in egalitarian voices, women’s voices, LGBTQ voices, and it’s just a chance to teach and discuss with students on a very intimate level. We usually have, I would say, 10-15 students in the fellowship, and the topic is life’s big questions. … It’s a great way for students to get involved and ask specific questions and then take the next step into the Jewish community.
Another thing I started is Hillel Hangouts, a very simple idea. This was over the summer, when students said they had been missing each other for months due the pandemic.
Hillel Hangouts used the small group model of many congregations, and it basically said, pick a topic, and then we’ll put you in groups with your friends, and you’ll meet once a week, once every two weeks, whatever it is, but we’re just going to facilitate conversations so they can see each other over Zoom. We had book club and film club and Jewish discussions club and one more for friends who didn’t have a theme.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
This is my third year as a rabbi, and it’s been a very tough year for everyone, for rabbis, for non-rabbis, Jews, non-Jews. It’s a tough 10 months that we’ve had, but the resiliency of the Jewish community has been amazing. Watching my students overcome so many obstacles in the pandemic and outside of it is just inspiring.
Selah Maya Zighelboim is editor of Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.