When Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91 learned that the position of Executive Director of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL) was open, he was “thunderstruck.”
When Steinlauf received notice Roth was leaving, he was initially concerned about what had happened, and if everything was okay. He decided to call a friend of his on the CJL Board of Directors. After informing Steinlauf that everything was alright, his friend suggested that Steinlauf consider applying for the position.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Steinlauf recalled how he felt at that prospect: “We have an expression in Yiddish called bashert, which means ‘meant to be.’ And so I threw my hat in the ring. And it all turned [around] very quickly, within a matter of maybe two and a half months, I had the job. And so [I’m] very excited to be back here.”
After serving as a pulpit rabbi for 25 years, this past July, Steinlauf returned to Princeton to take over as Executive Director of the CJL.
Steinlauf grew up on Long Island, New York. In 1987, he began his studies at Princeton, intending to major in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and pursue a career in international relations.
Upon coming to campus, though, he was struck by the varied backgrounds of students he met and the conversations he had about identity.
“Everybody was talking about their experience and their identity, and having grown up in Long Island, it’s kind of like everybody’s Jewish, but here [at Princeton], not everybody’s Jewish,” he said. “And I found myself explaining what it means to be Jewish to these people who were really interested, because they're not from that world. I enjoyed really explaining who I am and what that’s about.”
Through discussing his Jewish identity with his peers, Steinlauf developed an intellectual interest in the study of Judaism. Instead of majoring in SPIA as he had planned, he concentrated in Near Eastern Studies, writing his thesis on pre-modern Jewish historiography.
While pursuing his degree, he was very involved in the Jewish community on campus. In Steinlauf’s undergraduate years, the Orthodox Jewish community was housed in the former Stevenson Hall, while Hillel, a Jewish campus organization with branches at over 550 colleges, was based in Murray-Dodge Hall. Steinlauf was part of both communities.
“It was kind of a joke, [that] I sort of knew everybody on campus who was Jewish,” Steinlauf reflected.
Near the end of his undergraduate studies, Steinlauf found himself at a crossroads. Until then, his interest in studying Judaism had been purely academic, and he had focused on preparing to pursue a Ph.D. in Jewish history. But around time, people began to say that he would make a great rabbi.
“I didn’t know anything about that. As much as I was interested in Judaism, it was an academic interest,” he said.
Steinlauf decided to consult Rabbi Eddie Feld, then the director of Princeton’s Hillel.
Feld affirmed that rabbinical school might be a good option and encouraged Steinlauf to explore it by going to Israel. Steinlauf then spent a year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and subsequently decided that rabbinical school was the right step and attended the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Thirty-one years after graduating from Princeton, Steinlauf finds himself back in the very place that inspired his rabbinical career.
“I know how much it meant to me that the Jewish community was there for me here,” he said. “To the extent I can now play that role in helping to shape the path of Jewish students on campus, not necessarily to become rabbis, but to simply know that their Judaism and the Jewish community is here for them, is an incredible honor for me. That’s why I'm here.”
Rabbi Ira Dounn, Senior Jewish Educator at the CJL and Steinlauf’s colleague, commented on the significance of Steinlauf’s return to Princeton.
“I think for him, it’s personal, because he was the Jewish student here who was looking for robust Jewish student life. And now he gets to be the one who creates it for the next generations of students here,” he told the ‘Prince.’
After serving as a pulpit rabbi for over two decades, working at Hillel has marked a transition for Steinlauf. While serving in a congregation meant empowering people to take on leadership roles, at the end of the day, many of the decision-making responsibilities were his. At the CJL, while he still has many large institutional responsibilities, he said that the “energy” is about student leadership.
“When you’re a rabbi in a congregation, it’s a big giant production, and you have professionals hired to do all kinds of things. And here, it’s all the students,” said Steinlauf on preparing to lead his first High Holiday services at the CJL. “We had meetings all [throughout] the summer. I gave little intentions before the prayers, and of course, I gave the sermon. But [the students] also gave speeches. And they also led all the prayers.”
Theo Gross ’24, President and Gabbai, a person who assists with the running of Jewish services, of Koach, the CJL’s Conservative Jewish community, worked closely with Steinlauf to plan High Holiday services.
“He’s helped me kind of transition into my role as President of Koach,” Gross told the ‘Prince.’ “And Rabbi Gil really stepped up and [was] a very good advisor for the planning process. And the services turned out very well.”
Steinlauf was also pleased with the services’ outcome. “One woman came up to me, and she said, ‘I was looking at you on bimah. And the thing that struck me is the way you were watching the students lead the service. You’re just beaming with pride.’ And I said, ‘Yes, well, that was very genuine. I mean, that’s genuinely what I was feeling the whole time,’” he recalled.
“There is an expression in Yiddish, when you feel pride, loving pride towards someone else — we say kvell. So I joke that I’m the ‘kveller-in-chief.’ I just walk around, and I just feel incredible pride, because I’m seeing these young adults doing remarkable things in thoughtful, brilliant ways,” Steinlauf said.
Marissa Michaels ’22, CJL Program Coordinator and a former CJL undergraduate student, reflected, “It is really meaningful to see that he is accessible to students and really cares about making the student experience as good, but also as meaningful to their overall growth as possible.”
Michaels previously served as an Associate News Editor at the ‘Prince.’
This passion for undergraduate involvement might have come from Steinlauf’s own time at Princeton. As an undergraduate, Steinlauf was a part of the Student Planning Committee at Hillel. One of the projects he gave feedback on was architectural plans for the building that is now the CJL, which first opened in 1993.
“In those days, the Jewish community was in different locations, depending upon which kind of Jewish group you identified with,” he recalled. “To have one Center for Jewish Life on campus is remarkable, incredible, and a little bit surreal. Now, [I am] back all these decades later, as the director of the CJL, the very building that I [gave my opinions on].”
What’s most special to Steinlauf about his new role is the chance to witness the way Jewish life at the University has evolved since his own time as an undergraduate.
“Being Jewish back in my day, on Princeton’s campus, there were certainly a number of Jewish students. But there wasn’t the same kind of Jewish presence the way there is today,” he said. “The rhythms of the week are punctuated by really excellent programming and classes and trips throughout the year. And there is this home of Jewish life now on campus where students can come and feel welcome.”
Vasila Mirshamsova is a Features contributing writer for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.