By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – Rabbi Aaron Fine came on board as the new executive director of the University of Massachusetts Hillel House in July. For two weeks he was able to spend some time with Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, who has retired after 40 years as director of Hillel.
“There were a couple of weeks of overlap so we have been working very closely together, and actually for many months previous we were in conversation,” Fine said. “I feel very grateful to come into an institution where there can be a real healthy transition. Obviously he has been here for 40 years, which is amazing. But it’s great to come into a place where we are working together and making a healthy transition. He is available to help mentor me and teach me what I need to know about the place.”
Is Perlmutter a hard act to follow? Fine is asked.
Coming to Amherst is a homecoming for Fine, who has a deep connection to the Pioneer Valley. Born in Indiana, Fine’s family moved to Amherst when he was 10 years old. His father, Lawrence Fine, took a job at Mount Holyoke, where he is still a Jewish Studies professor, and his mother, Deborah, is a therapist in Northampton. His brother, Rabbi Jacob Fine, now runs the Abundance Farm at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton.
“I grew up going to the JCA (the Jewish Community of Amherst); my parents are still members there,” he said.
Fine went to Hebrew school at JCA and for many years during college worked at the temple’s Camp Shemesh in the summer, acting as director of the camp for several years. He graduated from Amherst High School, then attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he majored in Jewish studies and minored in art, focusing on film.
“The arts have been a big part of my life. Film is something I spent a lot of time on in college,” he said. His short film, “The Veins of Joy,” was screened at the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival.
He was also very involved in the Young Judean program.
“I always had a very positive Jewish identity. After high school I studied a year in Israel and had a year of exploration, religiously. That year, Judaism became a central passion in my life,” he said.
“I knew for a long time that I wanted to spend a lot of years studying Torah but it was a little later in the path that it made sense to become a rabbi,” he said. He went to Hebrew College in Boston for rabbinical school, enrolling there after returning from Israel.
“I never had a denominational identity, so Hebrew College was a good fit for me in many ways. I didn’t have to fit into a mold but could continue to grow and explore my own path.”
At Hebrew College, Fine was the program director of the Jewish Studies Program House, where 35 students lived. He was also actively involved in the kosher-hallal food
co-op for both Jewish and Muslim students.
Right out of rabbinical school and for the past five years, he served as rabbi at Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
“It is a Conservative synagogue and I felt totally comfortable playing that role, but I never have thought of myself as a Conservative rabbi, rather I was a rabbi of a Conservative synagogue. So I still don’t really have a denominational identity, which I think works well in the Hillel context.”
He learned about the opening at UMass Hillel earlier this year. “I had a wonderful five years at Temple Sinai but when I heard about this opportunity, I knew I wanted to be able to explore it…and that it worked out is quite amazing.”
“My wife and I always fantasized about getting back to the Valley,” he added. “It is really the one part of the world that both of us can imagine tying our roots down,” he said.
He met his wife, Emily, at Oberlin. She is currently finishing her degree in psychology and is doing her post-doctorate studies at Mount Holyoke. They have a 2 ½-year-old son, Emet.
Now ensconsed at Hillel and waiting for the school year to begin, he laughed that he is mostly “getting my bearings.”
“I am excited to create a really positive, fun work atmosphere among the staff. A great staff is already here and some great new programming staff is coming in,” he said. “It is exciting to me to have a large staff – larger than I had at the synagogue. Creating a positive sense of team among our staff is important because it really encourages people to bring their own passions to the table and that is when I think people work best – when they can bring out what their strengths and passions are. That carries over to engaging students.”
He is looking forward to working with Hillel’s new director of programming, Rebecca Steinfeld, who, like Fine, has interests in both the environment and the arts.
“Those are some of the things that are already a strong part of UMass Hillel life, with the Jewish theater collective and the new garden here. So I am excited to run with those things that we are both excited about.”
So does he plan to follow in Saul’s footsteps as a longtimer?
“I don’t see it as a stepping stone,” he said. “It certainly is a position that I can imagine myself really thriving in for a long time.”