A Place for Pluralism
After 15 years working there—and 10 in charge—Rabbi Mike Uram leaves Penn Hillel as a welcoming space for Jews and non-Jews alike.
In his second week working at Penn Hillel, Rabbi Mike Uram was given a task well-suited for a man in his 20s. Facebook had just allowed its users to post photos, and Uram was responsible for teaching older staff members how to navigate the new social network. “And how quickly I became a dinosaur in social media use,” laughs the now 44-year-old, who remained at the University’s center for Jewish life for more than 15 years, first as Penn Hillel’s assistant director and then as its executive director, before departing at the end of 2020.
“I basically came of age at Penn,” says Uram, who left to take a job as the chief vision and education officer of Pardes North America, under the umbrella of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “I moved to Philadelphia as a newly married person. I learned how to become a husband and a father. I learned to be a rabbi and a professional at Penn. … It’s really hard to say goodbye to so many people you love and to an organization you care so much about.”
The rise of social media is one way to chart how things have changed since Uram arrived at Penn. In his estimation, it’s led to less civil discourse between students who disagree politically, whereas “politics on campus were much more muted” in 2005. More positively, he’s also seen a dramatic shift in “students becoming much more transparent and real about their struggles and their vulnerabilities and their challenges with mental health.”
To navigate these changes, Uram tried to maintain a welcoming and pluralistic environment at Steinhardt Hall, Penn Hillel’s home since 2003, where students can find common ground in person, whether attending a panel discussion about Israel or eating Shabbat dinner. And Hillel staff members have often been the “first line of defense,” he says, for students to talk with about their mental health or any other concerns.
The doors are open to everybody, too. Uram notes that in a normal year Penn Hillel engages about 3,500 undergraduates—while there are only about 1,750 Jewish undergraduates at Penn. “So a huge amount of work involves interfaith dialogue, interfaith community services, and bridge building work between religious communities,” he says. Since Uram started as executive director in 2010, one of his proudest accomplishments was tripling Penn Hillel’s budget. And he directed those donor-raised funds to student programming that includes a fellowship in which Jews and Muslims learn Hebrew and Arabic together, social justice initiatives like a weekly soup kitchen inside Steinhardt Hall, and yearly interfaith trips to mentor orphans at a Rwandan youth village [“Horror and Hope,” Sep|Oct 2011]. “And people who would go to Rwanda or on our Israel programs or Spring Break programs would then become regulars at Hillel, whether or not they were Jewish,” Uram says. “To be there during a weekday dinner or a Friday night Shabbat dinner, when a huge number of students are of different faiths and colors and socioeconomic backgrounds, that level of inclusivity really ramped up.”
Ensuring that everyone inside Steinhardt Hall was always physically safe as well as emotionally safe was a “constant source of tension” for Uram, who recalls instances where individuals not affiliated with Penn “who were very agitated were trying to get into the building.” Their security protocols always worked, but Penn Hillel leaders have remained vigilant due to what Uram calls a “dramatic rise of the visibility of anti-Semitism in recent years.”
After a gunman opened fire on worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, killing 11 and wounding six, Penn Hillel hosted a campus vigil with staffers devoting many hours to help students cope with the tragedy. In many cases, however, Uram has noticed that Penn’s Jewish students are more concerned about “justice and equality and inclusivity for everyone,” he says, noting there have been more conversations about “how to be good partners and allies to Black Lives Matter and to LGBTQ students than how do we protect the Jews?” And based on research Penn Hillel did a few years ago, although a majority of Jewish students have reported hearing classic anti-Semitic tropes on campus, many did not think of it as anti-Semitism at the time. “We’re often trying to both be good allies,” Uram says, “and in our spare time trying to figure out how to raise a nuanced conversation about ways that anti-Semitism shows up on a college campus.”
Through it all, the students were always the most rewarding part of the job, and those relationships have lasted well past graduation. Uram has officiated weddings of couples who met while they were at Penn. On Alumni Weekend, he’s bumped into former students back on campus with their kids in tow. Before his final day, his colleagues gave him a 150-page memory book filled with messages from alumni about the effect Penn Hillel had on them. “It was everything from, ‘I never thought about Judaism in this way until we talked about it,’ to ‘I would never have made it through that moment of my depression without you,’” he says. “We’re there through thick and thin with students.”
It was a difficult decision for Uram to leave, but he’s excited for a new opportunity at Pardes and is comfortable with where he’s leaving Penn Hillel. Under his guidance, the organization recently completed a $10 million endowment campaign. Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, the current interim director and a candidate to fill the vacancy full-time, is an “outstanding” leader, he says. And Penn Hillel’s mission of social justice and inclusivity should only continue to grow. Uram hopes it can be a place of “healing to rebuild campus life post-pandemic.”
And Uram, who lives with his family just outside the city in Wynnewood, will be happy to keep helping in whatever way he can. “I’ve said to everyone I’ve talked to that I’m only six miles away,” he says. “If you have a cold and you need chicken soup, if you need a place to study to get away from campus, those relationships will transcend.” —DZ