Throughout her youth, Religious and Spiritual Life president Sylvie Feinsmith struggled to come to terms with all facets of the Jewish faith she was raised with. Now she creates a sense of belonging for students who pursue their roots in Judaism, even in the face of bigotry.
Feinsmith first came to USF in 2015 when she assumed the position of Program Director at USF Hillel.
After meeting the other members of USF Hillel, Feinsmith said she was excited about the job’s prospects. The students also represented an opportunity to create a new conversation around Judaism, Feinsmith said.
“[College students] are old enough to start having really intense, interesting, mind-blowing conversations,” Feinsmith said. “[College student’s] minds are not jaded or closed.
Alum Jamie Metzger said Feinsmith made USF Hillel a home for all of its student members.
“It’s like they’re his own child,” Metzger said. “She will go to great lengths to make sure they are safe and heard. I have never met anyone like her.
Despite the passion she felt for creating a safe space for Jewish students, Feinsmith said she had often been in the crosshairs of bigotry, which almost forced her to quit her job.
One of the worst moments she witnessed, Feinsmith said, was an act of assault outside the library in 2016. USF Hillel members were physically surrounded by an anti-Semitic group while police and university administrators watched and did not intervene.
The distress caused by this event almost caused Feinsmith to quit his post.
“I came back into the building and had, not a panic attack, a panic attack,” Feinsmith said. “I was encouraged to leave the pitch by family and friends who didn’t think it was safe.”
Ultimately, Feinsmith said she couldn’t quit a cause that meant so much to her because to her quitting means giving in.
Jewish students are already benefiting from his dedication to the cause, according to first-year psychology student Mara Zucker.
“I already feel 10 times more comfortable and safe as a Jewish student on campus, just because of Sylvie and the other professionals who made it that way,” Zucker said.
Feinsmith said she didn’t always feel so strong about her identity as a Jewish woman and struggled with her place in Judaism, especially the religious components.
Some women can be marginalized in Judaism and aren’t generally seen as leaders, according to Feinsmith, who she said she wasn’t exempt from.
As part of her upbringing, Feinsmith said her parents made sure she and her sisters were in touch with their Jewish background. They attended a Jewish school, celebrated Jewish holidays and traveled to Israel.
However, she often questioned Judaism and continued to do so when she moved to Israel to pursue her bachelor’s degree in political science at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy.
It was midway through finals week when Feinsmith received the news of his father’s passing. He was her connection to religious Judaism, she said. However, through exposure to other people’s perceptions of religious Judaism, Feinsmith said she was able to open up more about her religious ties.
“I was exposed to people who showed me there was more than one way [to practice religious Judaism]“said Feinsmith.
To combat the prejudices she faced growing up, Feinsmith said she would provide whatever support USF Hillel members would ask for.
“The women in this building are students and they will have access to all aspects of Judaism that interest them,” Feinsmith said. “They will be allowed and encouraged to do whatever they want to do.”
Feinsmith said she incorporates her abstract view of spirituality into how she guides students involved with USF Hillel.
“I’m not in the game of telling people how to embrace the experience or indulge their Judaism or their Jewish identity. It’s not my job,” Feinsmith said. “My job is to give [students] access to resources, opportunities and everything they need to what they choose to access to enrich themselves.
In the face of growing anti-Semitism, Feinsmith said she has hope for USF students and the potential they hold to address the prejudice and violence facing the Jewish community.
“I think we can show them how we could be,” Feinsmith said. “I believe the students on our campus could create a more peaceful scenario and a better example than anything said before.”