When Michelle Fisher SM ‘97 told her MIT advisor that she was making a sharp turn off the path to a PhD in chemistry toward becoming a rabbi, the advisor didn’t comprehend what Fisher said. “He asked me why I would ever consider leaving chemistry for medical school. I had to repeat, ‘No, I’m going to rabbinical school.’ It took him a few minutes to really grasp what I said.”
Now, more than 17 years after that fateful conversation, Rabbi Michelle Fisher is being recognized for her work with MIT’s Jewish community. On Dec. 10, she received a Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award, presented at the 2014 Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando, Fla. The conference attracted representatives from Hillel communities at about 550 colleges and universities in North America, and another 55 from international schools.
The Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award, named after the first president of an independent Hillel, recognizes Hillel professionals whose passion and devotion to their Jewish campus community sets a standard for others to emulate. A total of 17 MIT Jewish community members — including students, alumni, and staff — wrote recommendations to the selection committee on Fisher's behalf. Her engagement with students, boundless energy, and care for her Hillel staff were common themes, as was her pastoral care for Jewish MIT community members.
A formative experience cited by nominator Lev Meirowitz Nelson, a former rabbinic intern with MIT Hillel, was Fisher’s experience as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. She practiced what military chaplains refer to as “deck-plate ministry,” which involves getting out from behind their desks to take support directly to individuals and the community where they are at. Nelson wrote, “[W]e don’t do our jobs by sitting in our offices and waiting for students to come to us, but rather by getting out on campus, being involved with their lives, running into them casually as they go about their days.”
This is a lesson Fisher instills in her staff, and practices with students. “Hillel is in touch with nearly every Jewish undergraduate on campus, and reaches out to all incoming freshmen who show some indication that they are Jewish in their application,” Fisher said. “We start by wishing them 'mazel tov' on their admissions to MIT.” Today about 75 percent of Jewish undergraduates and grad students engage with Hillel or MIT’s Jewish ministry during their academic careers. “That ranges from a student who comes to a Passover Seder because his parents told him to, all the way to students who are deeply engaged with our programs. Whatever their level of involvement, we want Jewish students to know they have a network of people they can seek out who share their experience on some level.”
Nothing makes that connection more special in Fisher’s case than her degree from MIT. “Rabbi Fisher is an MIT graduate who can speak with a student knowingly about a ‘problem set’ or other aspects of MIT student life,” wrote nominator Bernard Levy ‘57, vice president of MIT Hillel’s Board of Directors. “The students respect that she knows from where they come and understands the unique pressures of MIT.”
As for the Exemplar Award, Fisher says that she is deeply honored and humbled to have her name added to a group of professionals that she seeks to emulate. “I aspired to be part of this list,” she said. “This award is taken very seriously in the Hillel world. And previous winners are people whom I admire for the great things they’ve done for their schools, Hillels, students, and the Jewish world.”
But mostly Rabbi Fisher is grateful to the team who has played such a huge role in building MIT Hillel into an award-winning program. In fact, the rabbi’s award was the second honor in as many years that recognized MIT Hillel. In 2013, Hillel International awarded a Vision and Values Award to MIT Hillel, naming it “A Great Place to Work.” To Shoshana Gibbor, director of birthright and Israel engagement for MIT Hillel, credit for that goes in part to Fisher as well. “Sometimes I truly believe that Michelle is wonder woman,” she wrote in her nomination for Rabbi Fisher. “She rises early and spends all her waking hours, time, and energy … making MIT Hillel a great place to work, making students feel supported in our Jewish community on campus, and making the larger Jewish community that we are all a part of a better, more vibrant place.”
“I wouldn’t have gotten [the Exemplar Award] without the MIT Hillel team,” Fisher added. “They’re the ones that are doing the day-to-day work. Hillel would not be thriving at MIT without what they’re doing. Six years ago, MIT Hillel wasn’t even on the map in the Hillel world. Today, thanks to all the work and support of students, staff, volunteers, and our incredible donors, MIT Hillel is perceived as being ahead of the curve in terms of student engagement, and our international recognition reflects the strength of Jewish life at MIT.”