In the Heart of the Action: Persons of Purpose in the Profession
Larry Goldbaum

With Pam Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor

Larry Goldbaum

Office of Religious and Spiritual Life
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Educational Background:
AB, University of Chicago, 1977 (Liberal Arts, Economics)
MA, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1983 (Political Economy)



        2010 Freedom Seder organizers (April 8, 2010) Larry Goldbaum is third from the left, standing.
1. What is the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and how did it get started?

(See Office Description on Website)

Unlike many private colleges and universities, UMass Amherst does not directly provide any religious services and does not employ any chaplains. My role as the program’s administrator is purely secular. That is not to say there are no religious activities on campus. However, all such activities are organized either by student organizations (i.e., religious RSOs such as Campus Crusade for Christ, the Muslim Students Association, etc.) or by private religious organizations such as the Newman Catholic Center or Hillel. For several years before the Office of Jewish Affairs (OJA) evolved into the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL), I had served as liaison between the University administration and the private religious organizations affiliated with the independent Religious Affairs Committee. That role made sense because I had long worked closely with Muslim, Catholic, and, of course, Jewish students; had acted as an advocate for students encountering problems as a result of their religious practices (e.g., conflicts with exams on days of religious observance); and had advocated for the needs of minority religious communities (such as Muslims after 9/11).

The OJA had been created to address conflicts that were ethnic and political rather than religious in nature—conflicts between African Americans and Jews stemming from a number of controversial (and sometimes anti-Semitic) speakers brought to campus by Black student groups in response to a series of racist incidents on campus in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as conflicts between Arab, Muslim and Jewish students stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These types of religio-ethnic conflict don’t fit well in other diversity programs, and so a separate program was created. But the focus was never intended to be, and never was, a single religious or ethnic community (i.e., Jewish students only). Rather, the focus was on building relationships—and greater understanding—between diverse religio-ethnic, cultural, and racial communities, and to support all minority communities (as part of the University’s broader commitment to diversity). My primary goal was to build bridges between groups that had little or no relationship, or a negative relationship.

To accomplish that goal, I decided early on to focus on programs and activities which would bring diverse groups together in positive ways; to foster collaboration between diverse communities; and to provide models for respectful discussion of controversial and emotionally-charged issues. The most important such program was our annual Freedom Seder.

2. Describe the annual Freedom Seder and its history at UMass Amherst.

Our tradition of an annual Freedom Seder began in 1999. We didn’t invent the Freedom Seder (Arthur Waskow did that in 1969), but we borrowed the idea and adapted it for our campus. The first few years, this program served as a vehicle to build a positive relationship between African American and Jewish students, who had been in conflict on our campus for a decade.  Several members of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and the Black Student Union (BSU) had begun talking about doing something together, as a way to heal the rift between their communities. One of the Jewish students suggested doing a Freedom Seder, and the BSU agreed. They came to me asking for help. I provided guidance and a graduate assistant, whose primary job was to assist these students. Together they fashioned our first UMass Freedom Seder. It was above all a “multicultural” program, inherently but not explicitly interfaith. The program was such a success that we’ve continued to do it every year—we just celebrated our fourteenth Freedom Seder—although it has continually evolved as new students from a variety of backgrounds and organizations join the planning committee.

The addition of the Muslim Students Association in 2007 was an especially important turning point, and the addition of an overtly Christian student group in 2010 (and the Baha’i Club in 2012) brought the interfaith dimension of this event to the fore. Interestingly, the single most committed group has been the BSU—even more so than the JSU, which has come and gone, both from the FS committee and as a functioning RSO over the past several years. We struggle every year with the purpose, focus, and specifics of the program, and that struggle lies at the heart of the educational value of the Freedom Seder for the student organizers. The process, though at times quite challenging, is always respectful, and through that process of wrestling with our different values, beliefs, traditions, and cultures, positive relationships—and indeed, true friendships—are born. The Freedom Seder is a powerful model of a bridge-building activity.

How is this annual event different from most interfaith events at colleges and universities?  The most important difference is that the Freedom Seder did not originate as an interfaith program, but rather as a way to build bridges between two communities, African Americans and Jews, whose religious identities were neither the source of the conflict nor its main focus. By contrast, religious identity is the focus of most explicitly “interfaith” programs.
What is the Freedom Seder "Hall of Fame"? The “Hall of Fame” is just a fancy name for our list of students on the Freedom Seder planning committees (from 1999 to the present) and the organizations that have sponsored this important program.  If not for these tremendously committed students and organizations, this valuable campus tradition would not have survived, let alone thrived! So we honor them by adding their names to the “Hall of Fame” on our website.
Student volunteers at December 2011 interfaith Habitat build in Florence, MA, listen to site supervisor Peter Jessop (president of Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity). Behind Jessop is the doorway these students framed earlier in the day, literally opening the door to interfaith understanding!      

3. What are your spring interfaith “builds” and how do these activities align with the goals of your organization?

In May 2011, in response to President Obama’s “Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge,” we launched a year-long interfaith community service initiative in partnership with the regional and campus chapters of Habitat for Humanity. Students from diverse religious traditions—Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan—have participated in one or more of our monthly interfaith builds. The students have wielded paint brushes, drills, saws, and hammers (in some cases for the first time in their lives), literally building houses for families who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford their own home. This volunteerism aligns with our goal of promoting a caring community by helping and connecting with other people—one important aspect of spirituality (with a small “s”).

Before and after each build, the participants spent time engaging in interfaith dialogue—describing their religious backgrounds, responding to a series of questions about their traditions and beliefs, and asking each other questions. These discussions were always friendly and respectful, and of course deeply meaningful, and sometimes continued over dinner. These interfaith dialogues align with another one of our goals—namely, promoting greater understanding of diverse religious traditions (as well as one’s own tradition).

4.  What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far as director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life?

I’ve learned to trust my instincts and my vision, but to listen carefully to what others have to say, to try to understand their vision—and to be creative and flexible enough to evolve and grow as changing circumstances require. Easier said than done, but imperative in these times of tight budgets, political upheavals, and spiritual evolution.

5.  You are at a public university.  Some critics  think that students should stick to activities that relate only to their academic education.  In other words, it is the not the business of higher education to teach students to learn to be tolerant and respectful of different faiths. How would you respond to this criticism of programs such as yours?

As an educator who has worked in the area of student affairs for more than 20 years, I don’t accept the view that higher education should, or can, be limited solely to academics. So much of our students’ growth—personal, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—takes place outside the classroom. That’s our domain.

Having said that, I would tend to agree with a portion of the criticism—although it’s not a criticism of our program, since that’s not what we do here at UMass Amherst. Let me explain. We don’t promote respect for others’ particular religious beliefs or practices, but rather awareness and knowledge, such that one’s attitude isn’t derived from ignorance, stereotypes, or prejudice. We hope to foster greater self-awareness (of one’s own beliefs and values and where they came from) and recognition that other people come from different backgrounds and have different beliefs, values, and traditions. For many people, that awareness leads to heightened respect for others. However, knowledge and awareness do not necessarily require or generate respect for other people’s beliefs, and—especially at a public university—we cannot compel a student to feel respectful or even (up to a point) to act respectfully toward someone whose beliefs they may find offensive. The First Amendment protects speech, including offensive speech (such as a nasty placard at a protest rally).

Consider the issues involved in the 2010 Supreme Court case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which the Court upheld the right of the Hastings School of Law (at UC Berkeley) to deny RSO status to a Christian organization which discriminates against LGBT students. Even if we were legally able to do so (which as a state institution we are not), the question arises: should the university foster respect for the particular beliefs which gave rise to the CLS’s discriminatory membership practices? A more extreme case is the Westboro Baptist Church, the group that has gained notoriety picketing at soldiers’ funerals and which has also visited many college and university campuses to protest what that group believes to be immoral pro-gay policies. Should we urge our LGBT (or other) students to respect those organizations’ anti-gay beliefs? The absurdity of the question speaks for itself. While we haven’t encountered such extreme cases at UMass Amherst, we have evangelical Christian and Pagan groups which hardly see eye to eye, to say nothing of the wide spectrum of religiosity from orthodoxy (of any type) to secularism and atheism. The First Amendment bars us (as a public university) from promoting either religion or non-religion, and promoting (let alone demanding) respect for religious beliefs may well cross that line. However, creating opportunities for interaction between students from diverse religious and spiritual traditions serves an educational purpose that is both constitutional and very meaningful (and enjoyable) for the students who participate in such interfaith programs. Those are the students we can and should serve.


  Christian, Muslim, Pagan, and Baha’i student volunteers with ORSL director Larry Goldbaum (far left) and future homeowner Mary Serrano (second from left) at our interfaith Habitat build in Florence, MA on March 11, 2012.
6. What do you like best about your work?

I enjoy interacting in meaningful and gratifying ways with a diverse array of students. I cherish the many opportunities to mentor, support, challenge, and learn from these wonderful young men and women. This year, for example, I had the opportunity to work closely with members of the Baha’i Club on the Freedom Seder and the interfaith Habitat builds, and that was a great gift. Getting to know these students, and seeing them grow (partly as a result of my efforts) is uplifting and nourishing.

7. What are some of the challenges that you have—either currently or in the past—that others might anticipate if they want to establish a program similar to yours.

The circumstances leading to the creation of the Office of Jewish Affairs (in 1995) and then its evolution into the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (in 2010) are undoubtedly unique—the result of our specific history. I expect that would be true for other institutions (especially other large public universities) as well, and they would need to determine what kind of program would make sense on their campus—whether similar to ours or not. This office was originally created to build bridges across ethnic, racial, religious and cultural divides stemming from specific conflicts on our campus (particularly Black/Jewish conflict and the very divisive Israeli/Palestinian issue), but as times have changed, the program has evolved to meet new and changing needs.

In my early days (as director of the Office of Jewish Affairs), the challenges grew out of the conflicts the office had been created to address. People often said to me, “You have a tough job! You’re in the middle of so many difficult issues!” Indeed. As the office has evolved—and the name changed to “Religious and Spiritual Life”—some new challenges have arisen. The words/concepts “religious” and “spiritual” are so laden with conflicting meanings, and this is especially challenging on a secular/liberal campus such as ours. It’s challenging even to define the scope of the office! Moreover, we don’t have a religion department (or major), so there’s no other administrative entity with explicit responsibility for this aspect of campus life. So the office has to fill multiple roles, including religious diversity/awareness; advocacy for minority religious communities; policy and calendar issues; individual support (e.g. around conflicts with religious holidays); interfaith programs; and liaison to the numerous private religious organizations and advisers who directly provide religious services for our students. It’s a lot, especially for one person! So it’s essential to think strategically, to look for opportunities to collaborate or cosponsor projects that serve the office’s and the University’s needs. Oh yes, you also need to take a lot of deep breaths!

Religious leaders at the UMass Amherst interfaith commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. ORSL director Larry Goldbaum (far right at podium), blows the shofar—a ram’s horn—to begin the ceremony.

8. What is the downside? And how do you best cope with problems that arise?

Because the office doesn’t fit the traditional mold of “religious life,” I spend a lot of time explaining what the office is (and what it does), and what it isn’t (or doesn’t do)—and why. As you can see from my answers to the first few questions, that’s not a simple conversation—let alone doing it over and over again with students, parents, faculty, and other administrators. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the important work that needs to be done, let alone talk about it! So how do I cope? Well, in addition to the frequent late hours and weekends, I swim several times a week (fortunately one of the campus pools is a two minute walk from my office), bike whenever possible, play soccer with my 12-year-old son, take long walks with my wife, try to meditate, and look forward to our weekly Friday evening Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) celebrations at home or with friends. Knowing there will be a respite at the end of each week helps me stay afloat in the storm.

9. What is your favorite interfaith story?

There are so many stories to choose from, but I especially like this one:  Last December, during one of our interfaith Habitat builds, a group of Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, and Jewish volunteers were framing a wall with a doorway. They were chatting and joking while trying to figure out how to drive a three-inch nail into a 2x4 (with some of them having never before wielded a hammer). It took a long time, and it wasn’t perfect. But by the end of the day they had framed the doorway. That door is a perfect metaphor for the work we do. These students’ humor, mutual warmth and friendship literally opened a door to interfaith understanding.

      2012 Freedom Seder organizers dressed to impress, at our 14th annual Freedom Seder on April 2, 2012. (Larry is fourth from the right).

10. If you could improve on the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (and money were no object),  what would you change?

As a very small (one-person) office, I’ve been extremely limited in the amount of programming I can do. With more resources, I would organize a far more ambitious array of programs including lectures, films, panel discussions, and possibly a speakers bureau. I would especially like to have programs which cut across the dividing lines between religious traditions, and between secular and religious perspectives, by addressing some of the important ethical, philosophical, and spiritual issues of our day—and doing so in a way that would attract a diverse audience and stimulate meaningful conversations between people who might not otherwise interact. I would love to have the resources to organize a series of programs with well-known speakers addressing a variety of timely and controversial topics. I’ve been reading about quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and the fascinating (if controversial) parallels to Eastern philosophy. Wouldn’t that make an interesting program?

11. You have written about your upbringing and the racism and prejudice that you observed growing up in Colorado (  How do you situate your work at UMass Amherst in the context of your larger personal narrative and worldview?

I’m deeply committed to the idea of social justice, or in Hebrew, tikkun olam (which translates as “repairing the world”)—a concept that is deeply imbedded in Judaism and other religions. Programs such as our interfaith community service project and the annual Freedom Seder provide meaningful ways to educate students about the importance of social justice tenets in all of our religious traditions, and to encourage them to learn and practice these principles. Prejudice is often the result of ignorance, and so our interfaith work helps to repair the world by fostering greater understanding and appreciation for the multiplicity and diversity of human experience. This religious diversity often crosses racial and ethnic lines, so our interfaith work also augments the University’s other (racial) diversity initiatives. Our advocacy and support for minority religious communities (especially Muslims after 9/11) is the most visible and tangible expression of this. Far too many of the worst atrocities in the last century have been committed in the name of religion, or because of religious differences, so whatever we can do to foster meaningful relationships and greater understanding will, I believe, make the world a better place. In that sense, my commitment to social justice, my religious beliefs, and my work are deeply intertwined.

12. Who have been positive influences on your life?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela—for obvious reasons. My mother, for showing me what it means to stand up for what is right, when (as a real estate broker) she sold the house across the street from us to an African American family, in a previously all-white neighborhood; and my father, for loving me through the tough times.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow, whose book Seasons of Our Joy introduced me to a new and (for me) more meaningful Jewish practice; and for conceiving the original Freedom Seder. Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, my long-time rabbi, for the inspiration and humor which helped me find my Jewish place. Our former chancellor and deputy chancellor, David Scott and Marcellette Williams, for their vision and support. Former dean of students JoAnne Vanin, who taught me what a true mentor is by supporting me through a tumultuous decade as I undertook the challenges of the work I am still doing at UMass Amherst, in no small part because of her wisdom and courage. And of course my wife, Jody Spitz, and my son, Isaac—who came to us “on the wings of eagles”—for teaching me what it means to love.

2012 Freedom Seder organizers at final planning meeting on 3/26/12 (Larry at far right)    

13. What influenced you to work in the field of higher education and religious life?

I’ve always loved the dynamism and the intellectual and cultural diversity of a college campus, and except for a few forays into the workaday world of warehouses, truck-driving, typesetting, and temp office work, I haven’t strayed too far from that milieu since my college days. In contrast, although I embraced Jewish tradition as an adult (after a long hiatus through the teenage and college years), I didn’t really choose to work in “religious life” per se. As explained above, my bridge-building and advocacy roles (relating especially to religio-ethnic minorities) evolved into the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, but that name is somewhat misleading since we do not organize or sponsor any religious activities as such. I did, however, choose to work in the area of religious diversity, and as I’ve already said, that aspect of my work has been very gratifying and uplifting. It was my commitment to social justice (particularly relating to race and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), more than religion itself, that led me in this direction. History’s twists and turns did the rest!

14. How has your educational background informed your work and service?

At first blush, my educational background seems unusual for someone in this position. It’s more typical for deans or directors of religious life to have degrees in theology and divinity, or perhaps counseling. For the typical religious life program at a private institution, that probably makes sense. But most public institutions do not directly provide any religious services such as pastoral counseling, worship services, etc. Those services are instead provided by private religious organizations. Indeed, at UMass Amherst, our focus is on interfaith relations and religious diversity rather than “religious life” per se, so the name of the office is probably misleading.

While an undergraduate, I participated in a graduate seminar in the University of Chicago Divinity School led by ethicist Alvin Pitcher (on energy policy); and my graduate studies at UMass Amherst were infused by a heavy dose of philosophy, sociology, and politics—especially in the areas of gender, race, and class. So my educational background isn’t as strange as it first appears, and in fact has served me quite well these past 17 years as I’ve struggled to build relationships with and between students whose ethnic, cultural, racial and religious identities are complex, in flux, and often in conflict.

Contact Information

Office of Religious and Spiritual Life
University of Massachusetts Amherst

c/o Center for Student Development
Student Union Building 416
41 Campus Center Way
Amherst, MA 01003

(413) 545-9642

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