While studying Judaic practices from thousands of years ago, Claire Drotman, a biology major at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in Ewing Township, discovered relevance to her modern life.
“I learned that a healthy relationship is one where you are both giving and receiving,” said Drotman, a rising junior who lives in Commack, N.Y. Her early Judaism course, taught by Rabbi Akiva Greenbaum, gave her a new perspective on relationships with other people, and with God. “I have learned a lot about how Judaism influences my everyday life, and how stories in the Torah are still relevant today.” Since she now understands the history behind the Jewish holidays, she feels motivated to celebrate Shabbat and holidays.
Greenbaum, a Chabad rabbi, is an adjunct faculty member at TCNJ who teaches three popular liberal arts courses — early Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and mental wellness and Jewish thought. Greenbaum calls his classes a “crash course” in Judaism because he teaches a great deal about the history and culture in so little time.
He said he tries to give his students “a mature, adult perspective of God from the Jewish perspective but in a way that is rational and logical.”
His courses attract Jewish and non-Jewish students, and while they are always full, the composition does vary each semester. “Some classes seem to be mostly Jewish; some seem to have very few Jewish students,” Greenbaum said.
“He made an open classroom where you can say whatever you want and you weren’t right or wrong,” said Rooshang Patel, a recent graduate who majored in finance. “It’s one of those few classes where you can just go in there and have a discussion on any issue and discuss it openly without worrying about your grade or what the teacher is going to think about you.”
Greenbaum’s classes are fueled by student participation and thoughtful questions. “You wouldn’t have Judaism without questioning,” he said. Instead of shying away from challenging questions, Greenbaumsaid he celebrates them. “I find that I learn more about my religion when they ask better questions,” he said.
Patel took the rabbi’s early Judaism and Jewish mysticism courses. He entered the rabbi’s classroom with few expectations, but came to appreciate the historical and philosophical aspects of the classes, the style of Greenbaum’s teaching, and the lessons he was learning.
“I went into it with kind of a closed mind,” said Patel, who was raised Hindu but is not practicing.
Patel said he took comfort in knowing the rabbi was accepting of the class’s diversity, a fact that encouraged him to participate and learn more. He keeps in touch with Greenbaum and knows the rabbi is always available.
“He doesn’t really care what you believe in,” said Patel. “He wants to get to know people on a personal basis and that’s something you don’t really get with professors.” According to Patel, Greenbaum applied that open-mindedness to the way he treated other people and was less likely to judge people and instead focus on what makes everyone unique.
Greenbaum’s previous teaching experience was in two yeshivot — Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad West Coast Talmudical Seminary in Los Angeles and Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel. “I don’t think the subjects I teach are too basic for yeshiva because I dig deeper into each topic discussed, and I think it would be interesting even for the advanced,” he said.
For TCNJ students, Greenbaum said, his content is “new and exciting,” and he appreciates sharing novel ideas with a wide audience.
In his early Judaism class, students follow the story of the Jewish people as set forth in the Torah through an analytic lens. They discuss topics like God, faith, and leadership. Jewish mysticism takes a more philosophical route — students explore the Jewish perspective on the meaning of life, evolution and creation, and the soul and the afterlife. In mental wellness and Jewish thought, students discuss Jewish perspectives on success, happiness, and personal fulfillment.
“I never really was into Judaism because it didn’t make sense mostly because I didn’t understand the concept of God,” Drotman said. She was drawn to Greenbaum’s class, she said, after deciding that rather than taking “a random liberal learning” class, she should enroll in “one that may influence my life.” The early Judaism course strengthened her connection to Judaism and exposed her to a depth of history and practice that she hadn’t known before. “I definitely feel a lot more connected to my religion,” she said.
Drotman is one of a tight-knit group of students who gather Friday night for Shabbat services and a home-cooked meal at Greenbaum’s off-campus home; the meal is prepared by Greenbaum and his wife, Zeesy. Around 40 students attend each week — all of the rabbi’s students, Jewish and not Jewish, are invited for Shabbat dinner.
Teaching is rewarding for Greenbaum. “It’s eye-opening for them to learn [Judaism’s] relevance and depth,” he said, citing his students’ spiritual growth. Presenting himself as more than a teacher, he is a mentor to his students, offering guidance beyond the classroom.
“I am here to help,” he said, “in any way I can.”