Meet Rabbi Elana Friedman

Author name
Chris Heltne, Student Affairs

Rabbi Elana Friedman began her work as Campus Rabbi for Jewish Life at Duke earlier this year. She can be reached at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, 919-684-3138, or

What attracted you to Duke and the position here?
I love the university environment -- the opportunities, the intellectual atmosphere, the infusion/appreciation of the arts and culture and the passion that people have for education, collaboration and creating a better world.  I was drawn to Duke’s vision and commitment to creating a values based community that is challenging, inclusive and diverse.  As a rabbi, I strongly appreciate Duke’s investment in student’s spiritual, intellectual, and cultural identities with Jewish Life at Duke being a facilitator for Jewish students. And of course, it did not go unnoticed that the campus is incredibly beautiful and Durham is a pretty rad place to live.

What are you looking forward to most in your new position?
I look forward to getting to know students, staff and faculty – learning about their journeys, struggles and hopes, and how I can help serve, inspire and support them.  I love teaching about Judaism and seek to empower students to find their own interpretation, meaning and place in our multi-faceted tradition. I am eager to begin our community focused Shabbat services and dinners; reflective High Holidays experiences and more Jewish learning and discussion in our Jewish Life at Duke programs.  I am also privileged to be working with the other outstanding religious and cultural groups and leaders on campus as we work together towards more open dialogue, understanding and justice.

Tell us a little about yourself, your background, the things you think are important.
I grew up on Long Island in an observant household where Judaism was happily part of my everyday life as a Jewish day school and Jewish camp attendee.  I got my B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis where I majored in Environmental Studies with minors in Political Science and Photography.  After college, I worked on environmental and election campaigns and learned about dedication and the pursuit of justice.  During those years, my Jewish practice took a backseat (although not my Jewish outlook!), which left me feeling unfulfilled.  After much introspection, I recognized that the rabbinical school (particularly the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) was the path for me since it enabled me to fuse my values, dreams, and passions.  My rabbinate includes intensive learning, wrestling with tradition, God and life’s challenges, and serving others to create a better world and Jewish Peoplehood.

Personally, I am super interested in all the arts – music, visual, theater, poetry, literature, and so on. I love traveling and eating delicious vegetarian food that usually includes a cheese board with my spouse, Jamie.  I love opening our home for Shabbat or holidays to share good food, conversation and maybe even an ecstatic experience or least an existential one.   

What would you say to Duke students, and specifically Jewish Duke students, as they return to Duke? What would you say to the new students?
Welcome!  As the new Campus Rabbi, I can’t wait to get to know you and learn with you!  There are so many potential opportunities for you to explore Judaism, engage in Jewish Life at Duke programs and have enlightening experiences with our warm community.  I invite you to join me for Shabbat every Friday night for learning, prayer and Shabbat dinner – a great time to connect with friends and meet other Jewish students.  I am also really looking forward to celebrating the High Holidays together – to reflect, celebrate and do some real spiritual work. 

Last, let’s get coffee!  Really, I am always ready to meet for coffee or a chat, so don’t be afraid to stop me on campus and say ‘hello’ or shoot me an email.   

What led you to become a Rabbi?
I am a lover of learning and am invested in the questions and process that bring a greater purpose in life.  For me, Judaism has presented a way of living that is not just compelling but also challenges us to be good people and decrease the brokenness in this complex world.  I am inspired by the great teachings and texts of Judaism, the power of communal experience and conversation, the call for justice and departure of loneliness – as a rabbi, I hope to bring that to others who are intrigued or have felt excluded, and empower their own Jewish journey.