I’m proud to own my identities’



January 14, 2019

Like Walt Whitman, Simcha Sher contains multitudes. She proudly wears the following labels: feminist, Orthodox Jew, sorority girl, social justice warrior.

Her intersectional identity helps her connect with students at her alma mater, Cornell University, where she serves as the newly appointed director of student life at Cornell Hillel.

The daughter of labor union leaders, Sher grew up on the “picket lines” in Upstate New York, sparking her love for activism. Her relationship with Judaism was defined by her passion for social justice, which only grew when she enrolled at Cornell to study digital media and social change.

Sher, 25, was a typical college student — at first. She became involved in campaigns committed to bettering work conditions. She rushed Alpha Phi. She attended conferences focused on leadership development.

During her junior year, she had a meeting with an Orthodox rabbi that piqued her interest in the religious aspect of Judaism. Sher peppered him with pointed questions about the rights of women, assuming his answers wouldn’t satisfy her.

She was wrong.

“Hearing him tell me that there’s space for woman in Judaism and that women’s activism is even part of our tradition,” Sher said. “I just sat there in awe.” 

Over the next few months, she developed a relationship with questioning and learning Torah, encouraging her to begin observing kashrut, celebrating Shabbat and dressing modestly. Sher continued to straddle with the many worlds she belonged to even after she traded her ripped-up jeans for skirts in 2015.

“When people ask how I became more connected to my Judaism, I simply can’t answer because it’s not a story that’s over yet,” Sher said. “I’m still on that journey — still asking tough questions like I have been since day one. I think owning that my Jewish journey is still live is vulnerable and powerful.” 

Now, as a Hillel professional, she uses her multiple identities to help students explore theirs. Sher serves as spiritual mentor for Big Red Bar Mitzvah, a program that gives students who never had bar or bat mitzvah the chance to study for one.

And her passion for feminism within Judaism manifests in her day-to-day work at Cornell Hillel. Sher creates women’s spaces on campus and teaches “Sex, Love and Romance: Toward a Postmodern Jewish Ethic,” which is part of the Jewish Learning Fellowship.

She hopes to implement meditation into more Jewish programs to help combat mental health issues at Cornell, where a rising number of students battle depression, stress and anxiety.

Sher said, “Our role as Hillel professionals is to help our students stand comfortably and proudly in their multiple identities, whether they be a Zionist feminist, a gay, observant Jew or an engineering major trying to find spirituality.”