The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Rabbi Mark Schiftan to Assume Role as Belmont University’s First Jewish Student Advisor

Rabbi Mark Schiftan is no stranger to bridge building. For close to two decades in Nashville he has been cultivating relationships well beyond the doors of his former congregation, The Temple Ohabai Shalom, and beyond the greater Jewish community. In an historic move, Schiftan is assuming a new role as the first Jewish student advisor at Belmont University, which identifies itself as a Christ-centered school. “I feel incredibly proud,” says Schiftan, “We could be disparaging of the times we are in. But in the midst of rising antisemitism here and in Israel, in Nashville we’re working to build bridges.” 


Belmont currently has just under 100 Jewish students, but with the creation of a new medical school, that number is expected to grow. The move to install Schiftan is a natural outgrowth of his longstanding friendship with Dr. Jon Roebuck, Executive director of The Reverend Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership. He says it is Belmont’s Christian values that are the driving force behind the move. “The goal is to display Christian love, not to strongarm anyone into a different belief system.”  


Roebuck and Schiftan have collaborated on building out a new Jewish studies initiative at Belmont, which is also focused on learning more about how the two faiths are similar and understanding the differences. But overall, says Roebuck, the goal is greater understanding. “This is all part of creating dialogue between the faith traditions at Belmont.” 


The need for that dialogue is also felt at the top of the administrative ladder. Provost Dr. David Gregory says, “I love the initiative Jon and Mark started and how our faiths complement one another. We are trying to set an example from the top down. We saw a need on campus and Mark was willing to help.”  


Roebuck says Schiftan’s appointment started with the creation of a Jewish student organization, headed by junior Izzy Marino who arrived on campus from Sugarland, Texas and found herself alone for the holidays. “I got to college and when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came along, I was doing it alone,” she says. Marino ended up meeting and joining with Vanderbilt Hillel students and enjoyed the community. She found herself on the board of Hillel, where the student advisor suggested she start an organization at Belmont. “I was so happy to see so much support. I thought it would have been harder,” she says.  


Marino was able to incorporate her experience with the Jewish student organization into a key element of Belmont’s Wellcore program which seeks to help students balance the demands of their academic life with their spiritual wellbeing. “It has enhanced my experience with Judaism. Learning what Jewish students need at Belmont has been super enlightening,” she says. She cites examples like the need for kosher food options, and approved time off for Jewish holidays. “I’m really excited for Rabbi Schiftan to be on board. We already have so many activities on campus, and it will be great to have him there.” 


In addition to the ongoing support, Schiftan’s presence is a reassuring one in the wake of October 7. Freshman Marley Boehm says she chose Belmont because of its creative community, and because she has family nearby. And she is comforted by the support from the administration. “I’m so glad I came this year to be part the grassroots effort to start a Jewish Student Association. I feel blessed that Belmont is taking initiative because other campuses are pretty hostile toward Jews right now.” 


Schiftan says his presence on campus sends a message to both Jewish parents and students that there is appropriate support. “After October 7 the need is even greater for a rabbinic figure to help process what’s happened,” he says. He adds that Belmont has not seen a rise in antisemitism, despite the religious orientation of the university. Nevertheless, Jewish students are excited to have a rabbi on campus. Boehm says, “It’s very exciting. I feel very taken care of and supported.” 


In addition to supporting Jewish students, Schiftan believes his new role will bring benefit to the larger Belmont community. “What I love doing most is building relationships. When you know someone of a different religion, it goes a long way toward building understanding.” His current plan is to schedule regular bi-weekly gathers with students, similar to his lunches with the rabbi at The Temple. He will also do some counseling, and lead holiday services. When asked how this position fits in with his retirement plans, he says, “Does a rabbi ever really retire?” 


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