Throughout her youth, President of Religious and Spiritual Life Sylvie Feinsmith struggled to accept all facets of the Jewish faith she was raised with. Now, she creates a sense of belonging for students pursuing their roots in Judaism, even in the face of bigotry.
Feinsmith first arrived at USF in 2015 when she assumed the position of program director of USF Hillel.
After meeting the other members of USF Hillel, Feinsmith said she was excited by the prospects of the position. The students also represented the possibility of creating 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 aren’t jaded or shut down.”
Alum Jamie Metzger said Feinsmith has made USF Hillel a home for all of its student members.
“It’s like they’re her own child,” Metzger said. “She will go through leaps and bounds to make sure that they’re safe and that they’re heard. I’ve never met anyone like her.”
Despite the passion she felt for creating a safe space for Jewish students, Feinsmith said she has often been in the line of fire of bigotry, which almost forced her to leave the position.
One of the worst moments she’s witnessed, Feinsmith said, was an act of aggression in front of the library in 2016. The members of USF Hillel were physically surrounded by an antisemitic group while Univeristy Police and administrators watched and didn’t intervene.
The distress caused by this event almost caused Feinsmith to leave her position.
“I came back to the building and had, not an anxiety attack, a panic attack,” Feinsmith said. “I was encouraged to leave the field by family members and friends who didn’t think it was safe.”
In the end, Feinsmith said she could not leave a cause that meant so much to her, because to her, giving up means giving in.
Jewish students are already benefiting from her dedication to the cause, according to freshman psychology major Mara Zucker.
“I already feel 10 times more comfortable and safer as a Jewish student on campus just because of Sylvie and the other professionals there that have made it that way,” Zucker said.
Feinsmith said she has not always felt so strong in her identity as a Jewish woman and has struggled with her place in Judaism, particularly the religious components.
Some women may face marginalization in Judaism and are generally not considered leaders, according to Feinsmith, which she said she has not been exempt from.
As part of her upbringing, Feinsmith said her parents made sure her and her sisters were in touch with their Jewish background. They attended a Jewish day 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 in political science at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy.
It was the middle of final’s week when Feinsmith received the news that her father had passed. He was her link to religious Judaism, she said. However, through exposure to other people’s perceptions of religious Judaism, Feinsmith said she was able to open herself more to her religious ties again.
“I was exposed to individuals who showed me that there was more than one way [to practice religious Judaism],” Feinsmith said.
To combat the prejudice she faced growing up, Feinsmith said she will provide whatever support the members of USF Hillel ask for.
“The women in this building are students and they will have access to all aspects of Judaism that interests them,” Feinsmith said. “They will be permitted and encouraged to do anything that they want to do.”
Feinsmith said she incorporates her abstract perception of spirituality into how she guides the students involved in USF Hillel.
“I’m not in the game of telling people how to embrace experience or indulge their Judaism or Jewish identity. That’s not my job,” Feinsmith said. “My job is to give [students] access to resources, opportunities and anything that they need to what they choose to access in order to enrich themselves.”
In the face of increasing antisemitism, Feinsmith said she has hope for USF students, and the potential they represent for resolving the prejudice and violence the Jewish community faces.
“I think we can show them how we could be,” Feinsmith said. “I believe that the students on our campus could create a scenario that is more peaceful and a better example than anything that’s been said before.”