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Duke’s Rhythmic Rabbi

Elana Friedman sees music as a connection between people and higher powers

Elana Friedman poses with a guitar she keeps in her office. She's joined by her dog, Barley. Photo courtesy of Elana Friedman.
Elana Friedman poses with a guitar she keeps in her office. She's joined by her dog, Barley. Photo courtesy of Elana Friedman.

Name: Elana FriedmanPosition: Campus rabbi and Jewish Chaplain, Jewish Life at DukeYears at Duke: 6 months 

What I do at Duke: As the rabbinic figure on campus, I’m responsible for making Judaism accessible to anyone on campus – this means I serve Jewish students and staff as well as people from other faith traditions. I am a Jewish educator and spiritual leader, teaching or facilitating with religious observances, like Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest as well as coordinating events around the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I also do a lot of engagement work, spending time building relationships with students to help them on their Jewish journey. Lastly, I do chaplaincy work with anyone who needs it for pastoral support and counseling.

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If I had $5 million, I would: First pay off my school loans and buy a house in Durham, then give a large chunk to organizations that do meaningful social justice work, like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, or had an impact on my rabbinic formation, like Camp JRF and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

My first ever job: For most of my teens, I worked pre- and post-maintenance at Ramah Nyack, a Jewish summer camp in New York. I attended the camp when I was younger, and my dad worked there for many years. It was an odd collection of manual labor before and after the camp season - trash runs, cleaning buildings, boarding up windows and painting.

My dream job: Right now it feels like I am doing it. But, if I had to pick something out of the box, it would be with music. I’m not a great musician, but perhaps I could be the bass player for Sleater-Kinney, one of my favorite bands. I’m a strong believer that music can be a path to encountering the divine and the unknowable. 

The best advice I ever received: To deal with the hard stuff first. I was told that by my mentor, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. (A prominent social and religious leader in New York City) It’s about not letting something slide when encountering something difficult - to have hard conversations and tough moments to confront the really challenging things. That can mean admitting wrong or asking for forgiveness or help. I try to instill this in every day.

What I love about Duke: The beautiful campus and the amazing students. Each conversation and interaction I get to have with students has been a gift. They are really interesting and passionate people. I feel lucky to accompany them during their time at Duke.

When I’m not at work, I like to: Hang out with my wife, Jamie, and our dog, Barley. He’s a mutt and is probably a mix between a bichon and terrier of some sort. I also like to go on adventures and travel, see music, art and theater.

An interesting/memorable day at work for me was: Yom Kippur. It’s so dramatically different from other days in the year. Even though I was new to the Duke community, it was a powerful and meaningful experience. I loved working with students and participants to create a holy space together.