The Rabbi Who Made a Miracle

As the leader of Tufts Hillel, Jeffrey Summit helped to transform an organization and an entire university
Jeffrey Summit at Tufts Hillel
Jeffrey Summit is stepping down from the position he held at Tufts Hillel for nearly four decades. Photo: Kelvin Ma
April 27, 2018

Share

Jeffrey Summit arrived at Tufts as the new Hillel rabbi back in 1979. Freshly ordained from Hebrew Union College, he showed up with a beard, a big smile, and his guitar. There was no skullcap in sight, but the big smile was more important anyway, because Hillel at Tufts was desperately in need of an optimist.

Five years earlier, Moshe Waldoks had been named the first full-time Hillel director. He’d laid the groundwork, but he had left in 1977, and a quick fade to oblivion seemed possible, and even likely, for the organization. There was no reason to expect that Summit, this new kid on the block, could rescue the vanishing religious culture on the campus—for the Jewish community or for anyone else. It was not a good time for faith and spirituality.

Despite these headwinds, Summit, AG88, AG95, A03P, A05P, went on to transform Hillel at Tufts, and, really, Tufts itself. Now, after nearly four decades in the position, his work as Hillel rabbi has come to an end. He has decided that when the academic year concludes he will step down from the position. And though he will continue as a research professor in the Department of Music and the Judaic Studies Program, he will be sorely missed in the role that made him a beloved pillar of the Tufts community.

What Brings Us Together

The matriculants of the late 1960s—the generation that produced Jeff Summit in the Brandeis graduating class of 1972—were politically active. They were angry that, by the end of 1967, the American government had landed nearly 500,000 American troops, most of them draftees, in Southeast Asia. These students were committed to social action and they wanted change. For these reasons, the words of Pete Seeger and Angela Davis might have resonated more with this new Tufts rabbi than those of Maimonides.

When I arrived at Tufts, in 1964, religious life on campus could fairly be described as a wasteland. There was a faculty member serving as part-time Hillel advisor. The part-time university chaplain was also a faculty-member refugee from the closing of the Crane Seminary—rather than spend money on a centennial celebration, Tufts had shut down the Unitarian Universalist seminary in 1969. As the turmoil over civil rights, women’s liberation, Woodstock, Stonewall, Kent State, and Vietnam roiled campuses and stirred students to action, spirituality and religious life seemed irrelevant. Many colleges and universities were closing their chapels.

In other words, it was hardly a welcoming environment for Summit as he stepped into his new job. The Hillel space in 1979 was a dingy room on the second floor of Curtis Hall, a building mysteriously called by its German name—the Kursaal. The university post office was downstairs, and it took two students moving a surplus refrigerator out of a storage closet for the new rabbi to have room for a desk amidst the shabby furniture. Thankfully, there was also a small kitchen and a table for the handful of people who joined Summit for his first Friday Sabbath dinner, which Jeremy Merrin, A80, would later memorably describe as “six Jews and a chicken.”

Summit’s work space may have been humble, and the campus may not have been spiritually inclined at the time, but Jeff Summit was not the kind of rabbi to be derailed by small details like that. Where there had previously been no Hillel presence, now the young rabbi was everywhere: at meetings, protests, services in two locations. He sped from corner to corner, from campus to campus, playing his guitar and gigging with other musicians, discussing politics and talking God.

Little by little, Summit’s efforts began to pay off. By 1994, fifteen years after he arrived at Tufts, the attitudes on campus had changed enough that the university was able to dedicate the Granoff Family Hillel Center. But that was just the beginning. Summit never let up. Both at home and abroad, for faculty, students, staff, alumni, administrators, presidents, and trustees, inside and outside of Judaism, he brought a special humanity that affected everyone. He combined a fundamental decency with a scholar’s mind, an intellectual curiosity with a teacher’s gift, and a fundraiser’s persistent charm with an organizational agility.

In his thirty-nine years as Hillel director—a position now endowed by the former trustee Joe Neubauer, E63, J90P—he reached out to Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and anyone else he could find. His message was as simple as it was relentless: people had to figure out a way to get along. Forget faith, if necessary; include sexual preference, gender, and race; dismiss everything that drove people apart; and seek the nobility of the human spirit that brings us together. Jeffrey Summit preached that message tirelessly.

Through the years, he also conducted fair-trade research with coffee farmers in Uganda; made music to bring religions together; inspired the trustee Bill Cummings to build a major medical center in Rwanda; and repeatedly, in Talloires, worked to understand the dark meaning of mass atrocities and genocide. And always there was Israel, for which he had a deep and abiding love, and which caused him, because of his innate sense of justice and a genuine concern for all people, some sleepless nights. This rabbi saw much that troubled him, but never lost faith in the human condition.

The young activist Reform rabbi who showed up here forty years ago has earned, as he pushes closer to age seventy, the privilege of introspection. He is the same Energizer bunny, but the color of his spiritual coat has grown a shade grayer, the beard a bit whiter. One sees less of the guitar, and the skullcap is now a permanent fixture as he has become more traditional. When he struggled with issues surrounding the Jewish state, he spoke on campus and nationally with eloquence and rationality—and was buffeted by some former students and alumni.

Tufts Hillel, recognized all over the country under its longtime leader as one of the outstanding campus success stories in Hillel Foundation history, suddenly found itself on a list of schools “unfriendly to Jewish students.” The irrationality of this characterization became clearer when Tufts somehow managed to be named by the Algemeiner as the twenty-third worst campus for Jewish students, and by the Forward as the thirteenth best place for Jewish students. Go figure.

Never Alone

Summit’s work as a rabbi speaks for itself, but his important contributions to academia should not go overlooked. His ethnomusicological studies—two books with Oxford University Press, a Grammy nomination for his recordings of the music of the black Jews of Uganda—have established him as a serious scholar. He mentors younger clergy all over the country, while continuing to teach, preach, and counsel. Hillel International uses Tufts as a model for success.

He never did it completely alone, of course. He won the hearts and minds of four Tufts presidents who provided the opportunity: Jean Mayer, who re-invented the chaplaincy and unleashed the power of religious belief at the university; John DiBiaggio, who had never in his two previous presidencies even met a university chaplain, but who gave his total support for building a Hillel center right on top of the campus, and then convinced the trustees; Larry Bacow, who invited the Tufts rabbi to place the first mezuzah in history on the doorpost of Gifford House when he and Adele moved in; and Tony Monaco, who has championed and supported his Hillel director through the most contentious times.

Summit also received constant support from his close friend, the university chaplain William “Scotty” McLennan. A Yale graduate, lawyer, and Unitarian Universalist–ordained minister, McLennan was the inspiration for the long-haired idealist-activist Reverend Scot in the famed Doonesbury comic strip, drawn by McLennan’s college roommate, the cartoonist Gary Trudeau.

There was one more indispensable partner, of course. While still in rabbinical school, Summit married Gail Kaufman, in 1975, the year she graduated from medical school. They were both twenty-five years old. She started a Boston medical practice and they brought up their kids, and anyone could see that this was a package. He was no ordinary rabbi and she was no ordinary rebbetzin.

So, no, he didn’t do it alone. But for the most part, it was him. Go to the Tufts University Chaplaincy website, spend a few minutes, and then contemplate the debt of gratitude we owe Jeffrey Summit. It would never have happened without him.

Sol  Gittleman, H10, A85P, is the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor Emeritus and was provost from 1981 to 2001.