Rabbi Jeffrey Summit reflects on nearly four decades as Tufts Hillel executive director

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit poses for a portrait at Hillel on Feb. 28. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit is the outgoing Jewish chaplain and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel, as well as a research professor in the music department and Judaic Studies program. During his 39 years at Tufts, in addition to leading Tufts Hillel, he has published monographs on the role of music in Jewish identity and worship, produced a Grammy-nominated album and taught courses on ethnomusicology to numerous Tufts students.

As Summit prepares to step down from Tufts Hillel at the end of the academic year, the Daily sat down with him for a wide-ranging conversation about his career, legacy and future plans.

The Tufts Daily (TD): When did you first come to Tufts and what brought you here?

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit (JS): I came to Tufts straight from rabbinical school — it was my first job and the only job I’ve held for the last 39 years. If someone had told me that I was going to be a rabbi when I was in college, I wouldn’t have known what to do with the information.

I’d always planned to be a lawyer. After I graduated from college and began to think about what to do with my life, I just was really drawn to deeper ways of interacting with people around issues that were really important in their lives: spiritual issues, issues of social justice, both personal and communal transformation.

The work that I do on campus has been connected with community building, counseling, conversations with people about important things happening in their lives: from family and relationship issues, to ways that they are thinking about their own spiritual life and direction, to their relationship with Israel, to their desire to make a meaningful difference in the world. Those are conversations that I really love having.

TD: What kept you at Tufts for so many years?

JS: I’ve stayed at Tufts for 39 years because of the students. People are very smart but also very nice, and people are thoughtful about how they want to be in the world. I don’t always agree with everyone, but I always value engaging with them. My opportunities have grown here and changed. The job I do right now is very different than the job I did 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 30 years ago. It’s certainly different from the job I did when I came here and it was just me in a tiny little office in Curtis Hall — literally two students moved a refrigerator out of a closet to make an office for me.

Over my time at Tufts my academic engagement also grew. I went back and did a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and began teaching, first in the Judaic Studies program, and now all my teaching is with the music department. My own engagement with research, writing and scholarship was able to take root at Tufts.

TD: What was being the Executive Director of Tufts Hillel like for you over the years?

JS: Being Executive Director of Tufts Hillel has really given me the opportunity to work with a broad range of people to think about what it means to build meaningful Jewish community on a university campus. I really believe in a rudder theory. If you have a big ship and it’s not going in a good direction, it’s very hard to push a big ship in the right direction, because ships are very heavy. But if you have a rudder, and you can move that rudder, the rudder will move the whole ship. College students are a rudder because people in universities, if it’s possible to engage with them about how you build communities that are real and vibrant and complex, then they will be the rudder that will move the larger ship of American Judaism towards a deeper and more meaningful involvement with values that are important for us to be engaged with.

TD: Why did you decide that now was the time to step down from your position at Tufts Hillel?

JS: It’s been 39 years, that’s a long time. The real reason is that for years, I loved working with people coming into college. But I feel myself very drawn right now in this political climate to being engaged in national issues. Part of the work I’ll be doing next year will be working in a national context with colleagues to further social justice issues.

I’m very drawn to work with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I’m very interested in mentoring colleagues. I’m often on the phone mentoring colleagues just because I’ve had a lot of experience with this work. I’m also doing more teaching for Tufts with alumni, faculty and trustees. This summer, I’ll be running a seminar in Talloires. I’m there actually almost every year which has been just extraordinary.

TD: What was it like to have your children at Tufts while you worked here?

JS: It was quite an experience having my kids here. I learned more about this school when my daughters were here than working here because I saw the school through their eyes and that was really important.

TD: What was something new you learned about Tufts during your daughters’ time here?

JS: The impact that faculty has on students. I sort of always knew it from being a faculty member and from seeing the dynamics between students and faculty, but when I heard the stories of how our daughters were inspired and taught and changed through their contact with faculty members who were so important to them, I understood the school in a different way.

TD: What is one of your best or most notable memories from your experience at Tufts?

JS: Tufts Hillel runs a program called Moral Voices, and it was founded together with the late Anne Heyman. We had our first Moral Voices program with Paul Rusesabagina, who was the original proprietor of the “Hotel Rwanda.” Afterwards, this donor was having a conversation with Paul Rusesabagina and asked him, “What do you need in Rwanda now?” He said that they have no way to deal with the million and a half orphans left from the genocide. Here, in the Tufts Hillel building, downstairs, Anne conceived of a project to build a village in Rwanda for orphans of the Rwandan genocide, and she went on to move mountains and work with consultants from Israel who had run the programs to bring children from the Holocaust to Israel — because these were children of genocide — to work with the government of Rwanda. She founded the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, and now every year we send 25 Tufts students to Rwanda, to this village. Then, we got Bill Cummings, a trustee [emeritus], involved in this program supporting Tufts students going to Rwanda. Because of his involvement, he got involved in Rwanda, and together with Bill Gates established a major health center in Rwanda, and this all grew out of work we did here. This impresses upon me that what we do could have such a tremendous impact in the world if we think big.

TD: What are your plans for the future?

JS: I’m going to continue my connection to Tufts because I’ll keep teaching in the music department. I’ll be working with Hillel International to do larger social justice projects. I’m especially interested in facilitating a national conversation about values and the values that drive us in this world. I’m also a musician, and I’m really excited about being more deeply engaged in my music and my writing. I just became a grandparent and my son is getting married. We’re blessed with a really wonderful family, and I’m excited to spend more time with them.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.