Penn Hillel Director Rabbi Michael Uram was recently named one of the country’s top 50 Jewish leaders by The Jewish Daily Forward.
He shares the honor with Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and singer and actress Barbra Streisand, among others. The Forward honored Uram — affectionately known as “Rabbi Mike” — for his peaceful response to the national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference at Penn.
Three years before his response to BDS, Rabbi Mike became the youngest director of any major Hillel across the country. However, as a college student, he did not see this position in his future.
“I never went to Hillel when I was in college, which I think is part of why I was attracted to it,” he said. “I didn’t grow up really Jewish. No one I went to college with would have thought I would become a rabbi.”
Uram attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he was social chair of the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau and an atheist.
A religion course sparked his interest in his faith. “I fell in love with religion through a Jewish Studies class, but I actually came to understand Judaism through classes in other religions,” he said.
For him, Judaism was always divided into either “comic-book Judaism” or “fortune-cookie Judaism.” Comic-book Judaism meant that “every holiday had a good guy, a bad guy and a food,” while fortune-cookie Judaism told him to “be a good person.”
Neither of these was “substantial enough [for him] to really build a life of meaning out of.”
Through Hillel, Uram wants to give college students a deeper experience than that of the average child.
“Every person should have the opportunity when they’re in college to be able to experience the real thing — sophisticated, deep, complex — and that actually is going to be spiritual food that actually provokes you to an adult Jewish identity,” he said.
He believes that while many are interested in Judaism, people can be intimidated.
“My goal is to destroy Jewish guilt,” he said.
Uram made an impression during the February BDS conference when he demonstrated his belief that silence can be louder than words.
Rather than organize a counter-protest that he believed would give BDS more publicity, he decided to encourage a “positive educational response” on campus.
However, he stressed that the reaction was a collaborative effort. He called himself the “symbol for all of the hard work” of Penn students and donors, the Jewish Federation and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
“Instead of attacking BDS and having essentially a gigantic, campus-wide fight about it, we decided that the right response to a conference that was about delegitimization and divestment of Israel was to have positive, grassroots Israel events around campus,” Uram said.
Among other events, Hillel hosted a talk led by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, an “Invest in Israel” party held at Smokey Joe’s and “Israel Across Penn” dinners. Hosted by 48 students, the dinners, which focused on positive conversations about Israel, had a turnout of approximately 800 attendees.
Staying true to the mission statement of Penn Hillel, “We were trying to create opportunities for students to author their own relationship with Israel, not just say why someone else’s relationship with Israel is wrong,” he added.
Supporters and alumni made generous donations to Penn in addition to Hillel’s fundraising efforts. Penn President Amy Gutmann expressed her support for Israel and thanked Uram and Hillel in a letter.
The peaceful reaction is now being held up as a model by Hillel International, which is working to create a version of the “Israel Across Penn” conversations at other university campuses.
“There’s such a rich and intense concentration of talent at this university, both on the faculty side and on the student side, that what happens here becomes a national model,” Uram said.
‘Dream much bigger’
Students who worked closely with Uram appreciate his mentorship.
“Basically, I drank the Kool-Aid of the University,” Rabbi Mike said. “I think it’s given me a lot in the sense that the University and this Hillel thrive at a very high level of excellence and … I actually am able to dream much bigger.”
Engineering sophomore Alon Krifcher, Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee’s education coordinator and Hillel External Board member, said, “He’s just been an incredible mentor and someone who I feel I’ve been able to turn to with problems within Hillel or outside of Hillel.”
Outgoing Hillel President and College senior Alex Jefferson got to know Uram over his four years at Penn and worked closely with him in response to the BDS conference.
“I think he really helped demonstrate and model how to manage a big task, a big project and many personalities and provide a good outcome,” he said. “We had a really meaningful experience working on that and I learned a lot from him in terms of leadership.”
College junior and outgoing Hillel Israel Vice President Brian Mund — a former Daily Pennsylvanian contributing writer — has also gotten to know Uram during his time at Penn.
“Rabbi Mike is both a leader and an inspiration,” he said in an email. “He is thoughtful, deliberative, and insightful. When he meets with students, he shuts off all other forms of outside distractions, and gives the students his full attention.”