Rabbi Elana Friedman

2023 Staff Recipient

Rabbi Elana Friedman with Interim Provost Jennifer Francis
Rabbi Elana Friedman with Interim Provost Jennifer Francis

Rabbi Elana Friedman has served since 2015 as the Duke University Campus Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain. She has exhibited deep commitment to joining campus community together around spirituality and celebration. The lengths to which Rabbi Elana has gone to support all members of Duke, especially the Jewish community, embody her character as a selfless servant, a humble teacher, and a generous friend.

Rabbi Elana was nominated by nine individuals representing Duke University faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents. Resoundingly, all spoke to Rabbi’s above and beyond dedication to building personal relationships with each Jewish student at Duke while cultivating a diverse, dynamic and supportive Jewish community for all students, faculty and staff. Her magnanimous wisdom, humor and goodwill have endeared her to all with whom she has interacted.

Students and alumni wrote at length about Rabbi Elana’s deep commitment to gathering with students individually, in groups and in celebration and worship. She coordinated many ways to help students build spiritual community amongst their peers while nurturing their skills as thoughtful and ethical leaders. When students approached her requesting musical worship along with the more traditional Shabbat services, Rabbi helped students host gatherings with acoustic guitar and song that made them feel at home. She organized Tea & Ethics, a small group meeting each week where 3-4 students would join to read The Ethicist and discuss moral dilemmas over cookies and tea. Rabbi supported students in planning Passover Seder for friends on campus, coaching them on ways to build engagement and to infuse meaning and joy into the religious celebration. Along with myriad ways Rabbi Elana supported students in regular gathering and events, the time she has taken to build and maintain individual relationships cannot be understated. Whether it is one-on-one coffee chats, tearful office conversations, or a birthday message each year to you, your parents, and your grandparents, Rabbi Elana devotes her life’s work to supporting those around her. As Duke Alumna Sarah Jacobs said,

Rabbi Elana shows up with her whole self every single day for the students of Duke University. There are countless stories of Jewish and non-Jewish students’ positive encounters with Rabbi Elana: from a casual smile while passing her on campus, to a coffee chat to catch up and ask for advice, to the life changing conversations that occur in her office on the toughest of days, Rabbi Elana is there for students in any and all capacities. I am just one of the thousands of Duke students’ lives she has inspired with her relatable Jewish wisdom, her infectious optimism and encouragement, and her genuine love and care for each student.

Rabbi Elana’s colleagues also speak to her generosity in joining across differences and building diverse religious communities. Dr. Laura Lieber, a faculty member in the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, discussed Rabbi’s success in joining traditions of both Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism into shared religious celebrations, most notably during High Holy Days. Dr. Lieber spoke to the profound meaning in bringing Duke’s diverse population of Jewish people together in shared spiritual community. Reverend Kathryn Lester-Bacon, Director of Religious Life at Duke University Chapel, also holds great respect for Rabbi and the ways she has enriched the Duke community. She writes,

Whether Rabbi Elana leads or whether she participates, a gathering is made stronger in purpose and enjoyment, by her generous spirit, gracious authority, and wise knowledge. When I invite her to join an interreligious program, I am honored when she accepts.

It is difficult to capture all of the warmth and love expressed by those who speak on behalf of Rabbi Elana. Each of the nominators count the Rabbi as a dear friend. Many have been transformed by knowing her. For her heartfelt generosity, compassionate selflessness and humble wisdom, Duke University is proud to name Rabbi Elana Friedman as the staff recipient of the 2023 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.