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Elise Pié: Hillel’s first converted president

by Beacon Staff • September 27, 2011

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strongJamie Bogert, Beacon Staff/strong

a href=http://berkeleybeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/on_faith_Graphic1.jpgimg class=alignleft size-medium wp-image-3813482 title=on_faith_Graphic src=http://berkeleybeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/on_faith_Graphic1-300x157.jpg alt= width=300 height=157 //a

emThis is the first installment in a series examining religion on campus./em

Elise Pié, president of Emerson’s Hillel organization, navigates through Shabbat dinner, the first for the school year, like an old pro. She knows just when it’s time to pass the sweet, doughy Challah bread around the table, and is quick to advise you to stay away from swordfish when keeping kosher.

She is confident when the room grows quiet as she leads without error the candle lighting and prayer portion of Shabbat, the seventh day of the Jewish week and the day of rest.

Pié, the first woman and first convert to hold the position of president at Emerson’s Hillel, helps guide students and faculty members to tables filled with roasted vegetables, Matzo balls, chicken soup, and a dessert of chocolate brownies.

One would never know that instead of hearing the story of the Hanukkah Goblins as a child, she sat on Santa’s lap and waited for presents under the tree.

“I went to church and did CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), the afterschool learning program; I remember even being young, listening to some of the things they were saying and not agreeing with it,” the senior communication sciences and disorders major said, “I kind of fell out of touch religiously.”

While her parents still celebrated Catholic holidays, they stopped going to church when Pié was about 12, and she felt disconnected from the faith in which she was raised, she said.

Once Pié decided to join Emerson Hillel, she said her parents thought it amusing that it all started with a sign for a free Shabbat dinner posted on a bulletin board her freshman year.

“My family thinks whatever makes you happy is your choice. They were really supportive,” Pié said, “I was really lucky in that sense.”

After that first step, her dedication to Hillel grew, and by last year Pié was promoted to the position of vice president while still being a Catholic.

David Goldberg, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major and former Hillel president, said he was impressed with Pié and her dedication to the Jewish religion, though whether she was Jewish or not didn’t change anything in the first place.

“Sometimes events we hold are 50 percent non-Jewish,” Goldberg said, “Elise converting was just an added bonus; she’s really committed to learning which I think is phenomenal.”

Once Pié was certain that Judaism was the path she wanted to take, she was excited to begin the process but was met with some opposition at first, she said.

Two rabbis in Connecticut, where Pié is originally from, rejected her, saying it would take a year to convert Reform, which is what she was looking to do. This initial resistance from a rabbi is common said Rabbi Albert Axelrad, professor of religion and spiritual counselor at Emerson.

“My response would be one of discouragement, not once, or twice but a minimal of three times,” Axelrad said in a phone interview. “If you come back with ample evidence that you are serious then we can open our arms and help you accomplish the process.”

Reform Judaism, in comparison to Orthodox, is more open to non-traditional groups of people including the gay community, and also was the first to allow woman rabbis to practice. This was something that Pié gravitated toward when beginning the process, she said.

“It’s a bit more free in where you want to explore in the Torah and what you believe in,” Pié said. “There are some traditions that you don’t have to do, and you have more options.”

Pié kept searching for the right rabbi when Arinne Braverman, the advisor for Hillel and director of regional student services at Hillel Council of New England, stepped in and provided a light with the perfect rabbi waving at the end of the tunnel.

“He said to me, I’m not going to give you a timeframe it’s about your personal journey, and it’s about what you’ve already studied and what you want to study,” Pié said.

Pié took those words of encouragement and began her conversion in January of last year. She completed the process in April. Pié spent her time studying the Jewish religion and visiting different temples to see which one fit her best.

“I was at one and I told a rabbi that I was converting and he said ‘if you have any questions don’t feel embarrassed. It’s been 3,000 years and we’re still wondering why,’” Pié said.

Axelrad or Rabbi Al, as his students call him, says that the process isn’t all about the intellectual aspect but also observing celebrations and those choosing Judaism can talk spiritually with people other than their rabbi.

“The word ‘rabbi’ simply means ‘teacher’,” said Axelrad. “A person like all other persons, prone to making mistakes and missing the mark sometimes too.”

Once the proper steps for learning, observing, and practicing have been taken, the next part is the Mikveh, which is different for both men and women. For Elise, this included a ritual bath, of which there are four located in Boston, said Axelrad.

“You’re supposed to be as naked as the day you were born,” Pié said, “You immerse yourself 3 times — you’re cleansing your entire self.” With her mother, two rabbis and Braverman present, Pié felt ready to take on her new life, she said.

Rabbi Al agrees that a Mikveh is more so a rebirth and not a removal of impurities. He doesn’t believe that the life you lived previously was impure.

“I think all human beings are sacred; what I affirm is that the Mikveh is a symbol of rebirth, starting a new life,” he said.

This year, all eyes are on Pié for guidance and leadership as she tackles her new position as president of Hillel.

“It feels really empowering where we’re mostly reform at Emerson and women can have bigger roles,” Pié said.

Shabbat dinner ends with a short speech by Pié where she weaves together the D’var Torah, a portion of the Torah that you read and interpret, and advice about being at Emerson.

“The Jews wandered the desert for 40 years, their shoes didn’t wear out,” Pié said. “As we carry through our journey at Emerson we won’t lose steam either; we’ll keep going.”

emBogert can be reached at/em

em jamie_bogert@emerson.edu./em

emFollow her on Twitter @J_Bogert/em