A spirit of inclusivity, mentorship, scholarship: community reflects on career of Professor Robert Weiner, who will retire at end of term

Professor Robert Weiner will retire this May after a 50-year long career at Lafayette. (Photo courtesy of Lafayette History Department)

Among former students and mentees of Robert Weiner, certain themes stand out about the history professor and co-leader of Hillel: he is an inquisitive spirit who makes a constant effort to include and learn about those with whom he crosses paths.

Weiner will retire at the end of this semester, he told The Lafayette two weeks ago. While his time on the faculty at Lafayette winds down, the impact he made on the community from 1969 to present day continues to resonate, particularly for those students with whom he has connected.

Current and former students he has worked with in Hillel said that Weiner has infused his spirit of inclusivity and acceptance into the Jewish campus life society, helping make it what it is today.

“He’s the epitome of Hillel,” said Sydney Edelson ’19, current co-president of Hillel.  “Now Hillel has taken on this aura of its own, which is inclusive and accepting and loving, and that’s because of the legacy [of acceptance and openness] he helped create.”

Robert Kivort ’89 said that during his time on campus, and during his classes with Weiner, Kivort saw how Weiner made Lafayette more welcoming to those who were different—at the time, campus was quite “homogeneous,” as Kivort described, and being Jewish made one stick out from the norm.

Philip Abramsky ’77 took Weiner’s class on the period after World War II, which involved discussions of the Holocaust. Weiner advised him to take the class and step out of his comfort zone, and Philip, whose mother and grandfather were Holocaust survivors, was thankful for that.

“I grew up with short stories [about the Holocaust]…[but] never discussed impact of the horrors of the war,” Philip said. “Then, [Weiner] opened my mind to realizing that I…was a piece of the history. It connected me in a way that I had never felt before.”

Philip’s son, Sam Abramsky ’15, also knew Weiner well during his time on campus, working with him closely as a member of the Hillel board.

“He wanted to get to know [me]. He wanted to help [me] in [my] path, and helped me in my social, political experiences,” Sam said. 

“I remember, there was some form of anti-Semitism during my 4 years, and he definitely made me personally feel a bit safer to speak up and stand up for my background,” he added. “He [isn’t] shy at all about standing up for what’s right.”

Ilana Goldstein ’19, co-president of Hillel, said that Weiner’s warmth and “infectious charm” is part of what has made him such an influential figure on campus.

She added that the way in which he employs his “familiar, warm, grand yet intimate” voice, both in conversation and in singing as a cantor, is quite “captivating.” He can connect deeply with others, she added, while having also mastered the art of goofy small talk, or “kibitzing.”

Miriam Swartz ’18, who was president of Hillel during her time on campus, said another part of what makes Weiner an influential figure is his inquisitiveness and friendliness.

“He wants to know everything about everyone he gets to meet,” Swartz said, adding he constantly has inclusivity on the mind. Michael Rockman ’15 similarly discussed Weiner’s desire to not only get to know those around him but make them feel comfortable.

“He would go out of his way to meet new people. He wanted to make especially sure [new] people felt welcome” at Friday Shabbat dinners at Hillel, Rockman said. Alexander Jarin ’15 similarly noted Weiner’s biggest impact on his life was “getting to know me as a person and really not just as another student ID number on a class list.”

“He was always a friendly face, a smile, a big hug. [He is] just one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve ever known,” said Josh Sperber ’15, who was on the board of Hillel.

“The way that he teaches is as a storyteller,” said Rachel Robertson ’18. “He incorporates the emotion and feeling into it.”

Robertson, who was also on the board of Hillel, said although she “didn’t have to take” any of his classes, she did so because of the “wonderful” things she had heard about his classes.

Rockman didn’t have the chance to take a full semester of one of Weiner’s classes, but he dropped in on ones he heard were particularly engaging, such as the Modern Jewish history course.

“I heard that he made history feel real and feel alive,” Rockman said, and he wanted to experience the class for himself. 

Sperber noted that, during his time on the board of Hillel, Weiner played a “fluid” role, making way for the other board members to “run the show and let [their] ideas shine through.”

“[Co-director of Hillel and math professor Ethan] Berkove really was the main leader while I was there, but [Weiner] was always the person we bounced ideas off of,” said Robertson. “He would tell us what we had done in the past, what had worked well.”

“If we had a question about what Hillel stands for, he was always the one reassuring us of ‘this is what Hillel is,’ and what we should do,” she added.

Berkove noted that Weiner was “ahead of his time” in coming up with certain ideas for Hillel, such as having the society be open to the whole community, not charging for participation in events and not taking attendance—things all all common in other Hillel programs now.

“He was really forward looking,” Berkove said. “He was looking at how are you going to build something for students that lasts over time.”

I’ve learned a lot from him,” he added. “As I look at the importance he places on community, trying to make a place better, these are the sorts of characteristics I’ve been trying to develop.”

Many of Weiner’s students and mentees described his legacy as transcending the Hillel and Lafayette communities, though he is an integral part of both. Weiner has been actively involved in the Jewish community in Easton. Robertson noted that his ability to foster “cross community” engagement was one of the primary marks of his legacy.

Weiner even went so far as to make community engagement a requirement for some of his classes, which Robertson said contributed to students maintaining a “well rounded life” outside of the classroom.

“When alumni come back, it’s clear that Bob Weiner is a beloved figure in their memory,” Berkove said. “When they look back at the times they had with the organization they remember him and his family and these are very special memories for them.”

Weiner said in an interview with The Lafayette that he will miss the students most in retirement.

“Outside and inside, our students are incredible. That’s been the hardest thing to think about in terms of retirement, to think about, on a weekly basis, not being on contact with people who really want to learn something and who will do good things,” he said.

About Kathryn Kelly

Kathryn Kelly '19 is the editor-in-chief of The Lafayette. She studies government & law and Classics.

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