During 31 years at Columbia University, Rabbi Charles Sheer has seen a succession of political movements wax and wane: anti-war at the beginning, then feminist issues, and gay rights in recent years.
But the rabbi’s most poignant memories at the university are about small classes, not sweeping events.
Since becoming the school’s Jewish chaplain in 1969, two years after he was ordained by Yeshiva University, Rabbi Sheer has taught classes every semester, usually in Chumash (Torah) or Gemara (Talmud).
"Sometimes it was just a few students … a dynamic group of students, just sitting around the table" discussing a point raised by the week’s parshah or the day’s daf, he said the other day.
The rabbi (and the table) are moving this week from the cramped, basement office in Earl Hall, which houses the campus’ religious organizations.
The Robert K. Kraft Family Center for Jewish Student Life, a six-story structure of Jerusalem stone, on a former parking lot at 606 W. 115 St., will be dedicated Sunday, April 2 at 1 p.m.The site, supported by the Jewish Campus Life Fund and the Jewish Student Community at Columbia University, will be the new home of more then three dozen student groups and a hangout place for the school’s estimated 6,000 Jewish students.
Rabbi Sheer, 57, has played an active role in the center’s approximately $15.5 million fund-raising campaign.
"I’m sorry I didn’t start the building campaign earlier," he says, sitting in his office, which is decorated with his collection of seashells, mineral chunks and wrinkled 20-year-old etrogim. Although his hair is grayer and thinner than in a photograph that accompanied a 1971 New York Times story about the "New Rabbi at Columbia," he is still thin, with a runner’s build.
The rabbi is a jogger, and he can usually beat his students, nearly 40 years his junior. "I do a 7-minute mile," he says.
Rabbi Sheer, a Riverdale resident, was a founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the activist organization group that often served as a gadfly to more-establishment groups during the Soviet Jewry movement: he was arrested during one demonstration.
"I’m doing the same kind of things [for the Jewish people] in a different way," he says. "I’m very radical in a certain way."
For the rabbi, who first aspired to a career as a tropical researcher in a zoo but entered the rabbinate because "I enjoyed [advanced Jewish] learning very much," the center dedication will be a chance to renew ties with some of the thousands of students whose paths he has crossed over the last three decades.
"I am reasonably connected with my alumni," he says. "Many of them are my friends." Many continue to call him, years after they graduated, with their halachic sheilot.
"We bring our questions of halacha to him," says Debby Wine, a social worker in Sharon., Mass., who attended Columbia in the late 1980s with her husband-to be, Joel, and asked Rabbi Sheer to officiate at their wedding. "We have a history with him. We very much trust his advice."
He has incredible tolerance and respect for all different kinds of people," Wine says, citing how the rabbi helped her and Joel deal with a Thanksgiving meal one year at the home of a relative with different kashrut standards, and how he protected the honor of a Conservative rabbi at whose synagogue he performed the Wine’s wedding.
"People know that I’m progressive, but I’m not a meikel," lenient in making halachic decisions, Rabbi Sheer says.
As a campus chaplain he deals with the educational and spiritual needs of a wide range of Jewish students. Although the Orthodox Jews have a strong presence in organized Jewish life on Columbia’s campus, the student body also includes Reform and Conservative Jews, openly homosexual Jews and those with minimal Jewish backgrounds.
"The challenge of creating a community that diverse is a fascinating one," he says.
"I’m an open-minded person," says Rabbi Sheer, who was born in the Bronx but grew up in Berkeley, Cal. "When possible, I try not to emphasize the differences between the movements.
"I am a Berkeley person," he says The city, home to a branch of the University of California, has long been regarded as one of the most liberal cities in the country.
The rabbi supported the growth of the Columbia’s women’s tefillah group, which holds weekly services. Like virtually all such groups, the tefilla group does not pretend to be a minyan, and omits the prayers that require a quorum of 10 men. Still, such groups, whose activities are a break from Jewish tradition, have attracted heavy criticism in right-wing Orthodox circles.
"I’m not crazy about it, but it’s not prohibited" by Jewish law, Rabbi Sheer says. "It doesn’t solve the issue of the role of women in Orthodoxy."
His associate chaplain is Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, who was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Though non-Orthodox students often turn to Rabbi Sheer, many feel more comfortable with someone from a non-Orthodox background.
"I’ve deliberately chosen women" as an assistant, Rabbi Sheer says. "I’ve deliberately chosen Reform."
His duties at Columbia include programming, counseling and answering questions of Jewish law.
One of his favorite parts of the job is a Gemara class. "I’ve given the shuir for 30 years": until fund raising for the new center overwhelmed his schedule this year. The Gemara class will resume next year, he says.
"I see myself staying here for a few years," the rabbi says about his future at Columbia. After that: possibly full-time teaching, maybe in Israel. "I’m really a teacher," he says "My dream is to go back to straight teaching."