College campus is perfect fit for Hillel rabbi

Rabbi Andy Kastner

By Kate Gaertner, Jewish Light Staff

When asked why he decided to become a campus rabbi, Andy Kastner’s answer is simple: He loved college. 

“My wife will tell you that I joke about going back for another bachelor’s degree,” says Rabbi Kastner, 30, who attended Indiana University as an undergraduate. “It’s a time of vulnerability, of possibility. It’s a time of exploration and choice-and experimentation, a time during which all of your choices seem to hold massive amounts of significance. I wanted to be a voice in that experience for others.”

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Kastner is the type of clear, focused interviewee whose intelligence is immediately apparent. He pauses to consider each question before answering it, and though this will be his first formal job as a rabbi, he already seems to possess the calm, considerate demeanor of a spiritual leader.

“I think that the most successful rabbis are adept at the art of creating space for the other. There’s really a risk you’re taking when you take up any sort of public persona. In the rabbinate, we’re channeling a higher power to the ego, we’re supposed to tell people what to do, to push people in the direction,” says Kastner. “I see myself as a guide in this way, but my strength, as I see it, is knowing when to create space for the other to grow.”

This space for the other, Kastner acknowledges, is particularly important on a college campus, where students are rapidly developing their opinions, beliefs and identities-identities that, Kastner says, they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

“The first task for me is to meet the students where they are. I want to hear their stories. I want to be a resource for them. I feel like my role, in that aspect of students’ journeys, is to be a resource, a listener. Sometimes to push and sometimes to pull, but primarily to meet students where they’re at and to give them the guidance that they’ll need,” Kastner says.

Kastner is keenly aware of the challenges of catering to the pluralistic Jewish community that Hillel serves, and he sees his task, in part, as helping students find their niche within it. Next year, Kastner and Hillel will focus on helping students to create their own traditions by offering students something called “Shabbat-In-A-Box,” a cardboard box with challah, grape juice, candles and prayer guides.

“I want them to be able to take these back to their fraternity houses, to wherever they live, and forge these traditions, make them meaningful in their own ways,” Kastner says.

Kastner says that he has no specific agenda for how he will interact with students during his first year, but will choose instead to shape his programming to the needs he sees in the students that he serves.

“I’m planning on drinking a lot of coffee,” Kastner laughs. “A lot of coffee, on campus, talking with students. And I’m planning on teaching-on teaching about diversity, about sustainability, about spirituality, about pluralism and dialogue and social responsibility.”

To reach Rabbi Andy Kastner, call 314-935-9037 or email [email protected]