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Meeting our Affiliated Chaplains – Rabbi Joshua Barton

Posted by on Monday, April 15, 2013 in News.

Rabbi Joshua Barton


Rabbi Joshua Barton is the Assistant Director and Campus Rabbi for Vanderbilt Hillel. As an undergrad here at Vanderbilt, Joshua earned his BA, magna cum laude, in Religious Studies and Political Science. From there, he would study at University of Haifa, The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and finally The Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he would earn his MA and be ordained as a Rabbi. Having experience ranging from Catholic Charities to teaching Midrash and Judaic Studies, Rabbi Joshua brings wonderful experience and life to Vanderbilt’s campus.


For those who don’t know, can you tell us about Hillel and some of the things that your ministry does?


Vanderbilt Hillel, while partially a student religious ministry, is also a campus cultural center.  Jewish Life is very diverse, including not only a number of denominations, but also various ways of expressing Jewish identity, both religious and cultural.  Hillel strives to provide the campus community interested in Jewish Life as many avenues for exploring and building their identities as possible.

Besides our weekly Sabbath meals and religious services on Friday night and the holidays, we also have various educational opportunities that include a weekly “lunch and learn,” a large range of speakers that we bring to the Schulman Center to talk about Jewish-related issues, as well as a number of umbrella groups that focus on more specific interests.  Those groups include a women’s group, men’s group, a group that works with Open Table Nashville on issues of homelessness, and Dores for Israel, which focuses on Israeli culture and current events.   We’re always looking for new groups that students want to start to add to the diversity of our experiences.


What are some of the events that Hillel participates in during the year?


We are very proud of the connections that we have on campus with other groups, particularly the MLC (Multi-Cultural Leadership Council), VIC (Vanderbilt Interfaith Council), Muslim Student Association, and the Middle East Student Association.  This year we have an event for Multi-cultural Awareness Month, and worked together with MESA (Middle-Eastern Student Association) and the MSA (Muslim Student Association) for a great Middle East Cooperation weekend last month.  This year we also had three events in the Weekend of Service with our Homelessness group (Vanderbilt at the Open Table), our local high school connection group (called BBYO Connect) and our Jewish education group (called Hadracha.)  We also strive to have a joyful celebration of the many Jewish holidays throughout the year.  This year we had major observances of The High Holidays, Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), Hanukkah, Purim, and of course, Passover.


Tell us how long you have been in Campus Ministry and your history with Hillel.


I have been working full-time for Vanderbilt Hillel since August 1st, but this is somewhat of a homecoming for me.  I graduated from Vandy in 2006 before moving to Israel and to Rabbinical School.  I have been here for the past four years as the rabbinic intern at Hillel, conducting services and meals for the high holidays.  It’s great to be back on campus, even though so much has changed in these few short years!


How does Hillel approach the spiritual lives of students on a busy campus like Vanderbilt and create a place for worship in their lives?


We first start with the premise that there are so many different ways in which people come to and express their Judaism.  For many Jewish people, cultural touchstones such as certain foods, rituals from their homes on the holidays, or even language are more important expressions than religious observance.  For others, the vast Jewish literary canon speaks more to them, and study becomes their mode of expression.  Others love to act out their beliefs in social justice through a Jewish lens.   We want to help students find whatever it is that excites them, that piques their interest, and help them run with it.  No project or initiative is too big or too small, as long as it helps a student find their connection.  Personally, I think Shabbat (the Sabbath) helps us a lot as a people to carve out space for reflection and prayer.  To have a day set aside, where you leave your normal cares and busy life to gather in prayer and fellowship, a few hours where you can’t do your homework, is very special.

As Passover approached, can you tell us what Hillel planned?


We had Seder (the ritual Passover meal) for two nights, Monday the 25th of March, and Tuesday the 26th.  As in all of our services, the Seder was student-led, and there was as many different kinds of Seder available as there are students to be excited about leading them.  We had Seders that are for different denominations, affinity groups, and in the case of Freshman, Seniors, and Graduate Students, for particular classes.   We also provided kosher-for-Passover meals for lunch and dinner every day for the duration of the eight-day holiday.

Recently, Hillel commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day with a special guest, can you tell us about it?


On Sunday, April 7th, Vanderbilt Hillel, together with Vanderbilt and Nashville community members, gathered to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day.  In attendance was former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, with his wife Nili, preceding his appearance at the IMPACT Symposium  The ceremony included the lighting 7 candles, 6 for each of the 6 million Jews murdered at the hands of the Nazis, and a seventh candle to remember the non-Jewish victims and heroes that assisted and hid those persecuted by the Nazis.  Emotions were high as stories of Holocaust victims were read during the candle lighting.  The ceremony concluded with the air raid siren heard in Israel on Holocaust Memorial Day there. See pictures here.