Take Five with Rabbi Deborah Waxman ’89

Rabbi Deborah Waxman ’89 Ph.D. is the president of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement. Waxman is the first female rabbi to head a Jewish congregational union and a Jewish seminary. She writes for The Forward, The Times of Israel, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post and other publications.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was excited to experience a world that was bigger, more diverse and frankly, more interesting than my suburban Connecticut childhood. I was aware that I needed to develop more independence, both in thought and action, and was determined to find the courage to do so. I thought — with good reason — that the Core Curriculum and the larger experience of New York City would be excellent laboratories for this kind of growth.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

My first year I lived on Carman 11. I didn’t spend a lot of time in my own suite. During the day, I spent time with Naomi Hanser ’89 and Abigail Wolf ’89, friends from COOP (the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, which I went on as a freshman and eventually ran), who lived in McBain, or with my friend Matt White ’89, GSAS’92, who lived next door. Late at night, when I would get home from the library, I would visit with my nocturnal friends Peter Berry ’89 and Geoff Carruthers ’89, who had the only double room on our floor, behind the elevators. They threw open the deadlock on their door and I would let myself in, and we would talk and listen to music and hang out for hours. I still remember the first time Peter played George Winston for me.

What class do you most remember and why?

One vote is my Literature Humanities class, which was taught by Priscilla Wald GSAS’89. She was a graduate student studying with Professor Ann Douglas and she encouraged us to analyze the texts through the lens of liminality. This approach continues to open up both texts and experiences for me in powerful ways. Another is “History of Religion in America,” taught by Randall Balmer. This class and Randy’s advising influenced my decisions to become a rabbi and ultimately to pursue doctoral studies in American Jewish history.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Geek that I am, my favorite spot was the quiet study hall in the rear of Butler Library. I was a regular all four years. I would walk through the cacophonous main reading room to this quiet, low-ceilinged room and claim a seat at one of the eight tables — ideally on the corner, which gave me more space to spread out my books and papers. This was in the days before cell phones or email, but my friends would know where to find me most weeknights between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., and all day Sunday. The other regulars would bring each other coffee and share snacks, check in with each other, watch bags if we ducked out for a conversation or meeting. Sometimes I developed relationships with folks beyond the library or had classes with them, but with many of the regulars, our entire relationship was confined to that room. I associate that space with learning and community and accomplishment.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would study Hebrew more intensively. I didn’t begin to study it until the fall of my junior year, in preparation for my spring semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was offered at 8 a.m. either four or five days a week, which felt punishingly early to me, so I didn’t sign up freshman year. But once I finally bit the bullet, the instruction was outstanding and my learning tremendous. I would have benefited enormously if I had done two solid years of college-level Hebrew.