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Rabbi Barry Cytron leaves legacy of mentorship after 28 years at Mac

]1 Rabbi Barry Cytron listens to a panel of his former students on “the Future of Jewish Studies in America” in Weyerhauser Chapel on April 3. Cytron is retiring after 28 years at Macalester College. Photo by Maddie Jaffe ’17.

Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the article printed in the April 28 issue entitled “Rabbi Barry Cytron leaves legacy of mentorship after 28 years at Mac.”

Over nearly three decades at Macalester, Rabbi Barry Cytron cemented himself as one of the Macalester College’s most beloved figures — a warm, wise, evergreen guide for Jewish students, and an influential purveyor of the school’s Jewish life.

On May 31, after 28 years at the college, Cytron will step away from his dual roles as chaplain and professor and into retirement. He will be greatly missed by students, faculty, and staff alike.

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Cytron arrived in Minnesota from Iowa in 1983 to work as the rabbi at a progressive Uptown synagogue called Adath Jeshurun. Soon after, he began teaching — arriving as an assistant religious studies professor at Macalester in 1989.

Cytron also taught and served in various roles at the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University through the years, but his ties to Macalester run especially deep.

Cytron’s daughter Naomi graduated from Macalester in 1999, and then, in 2007, the job of Jewish Chaplain at the school came open.

The person in charge of hiring for the position was the then-College Chaplain Rev. Lucy Forster-Smith, who left Macalester in 2014 for a position at Harvard University. Cytron was teaching in the religious studies department at the time, but was not initially a candidate for the job.

“We had met maybe once before,” Forster-Smith said of Cytron. “I knew his daughter Naomi when she was a student at Macalester, and I had known of him and known of his work. He was sort of an iconic figure in the Twin Cities in some of the ways he had worked at St. Thomas and done really wonderful work around Jewish and Christian dialogue and engagement.”

“We had gone through a little bit of a frustrating process trying to find someone,” Forster-Smith said. “We actually had interviewed a couple of people and I was working with and getting feedback from students. The people we were interviewing were great people, but not necessarily the right fit.”

“I literally called Barry, because I thought he’d be a good resource, and said, ‘who do you know, and would you be interested’ — which is what you do if you’re in this line of work — and he was like, ‘let’s talk.’”

Cytron didn’t need long to make his case.

“It was so clear, so quickly,” Forster-Smith said. “It was clear even before we ordered our food, or whatever we did. It was very clear that Barry would be an amazing, amazing chaplain.”

“Sometimes,” she continued, “you just absolutely make the right hire.”

Scores of Macalester students would agree.

“Barry is my most important and cherished mentor,” Adam Jones ’12, a soon-to-be rabbinical student, wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “From my first class with him in 2010 to the beginning of my rabbinical training this fall, his wisdom, generosity, and candor has been indispensable. Much, if not all, of the credit for where I am today belongs to him.”

“It’s hard to do justice to my dad and his career and the humor and humility and passion that he brings to his work,” said Naomi Cytron ’99. “It’s hard to adequately express it.”

For all of Cytron’s accomplishments — which range from over a decade directing the Jay Phillips Center for interfaith education to years of columns contributed to the Star Tribune — his focus at Macalester was always on his students.

“There are a lot of people who go into this field of chaplaincy for a variety of reasons,” Forster-Smith said. “Some are very enamored with academia, some being in a space where great thoughts are thought —and Barry does think great thoughts — but he cares deeply about students.”

“Watching the care and the time and the energy and the worry and the excitement about the way that students evolved was incredible.”

Oftentimes, that care and time had nothing to do with academics.

In recounting her introduction to Cytron upon her arrival as a religious studies professor in 2008, Susanna Drake said, “One of the first things I was struck by was that Barry was one of those people that, when he was on the hall, his door was open and he was meeting with students. I really had a sense of, this is a professor who is doing a lot of mentoring.”

In short order, she understood why.

“You always want to talk to Barry,” Drake said. “If Barry is in his office, I want to go talk to him. And sometimes you just want to talk to Barry about your life. I think that students also have this — they have something going on in their lives, they want to go talk to Barry.”

“It’s the sense of humor, the range of emotions he can talk about, the listening skills, the humility, the interest — I think you have a sincere interest in student lives with Barry — all of those things make him the guy you want to sit down with.”

“If you had a Yiddish dictionary and you looked up the word mensch, you’d probably have a picture of Barry there so you knew what it meant,” religious studies chair and Cytron’s longtime colleague Jim Laine said. “Great guy. It’s going to be tough to replace him.”

Cytron’s role as mentor was, by his own account, his most cherished at Macalester.

“Where else would I have had the chance for people of different religious faiths to knock on my door and say ‘can I have an hour of your time? I’m struggling with a personal issue,’” Cytron said. “That doesn’t happen when you’re set in the middle of a particular congregation.”

“The sheer privilege of being honored that students would be curious and interested in having me as one of the voices they turn to as they seek to figure out their lives, that’s an enormous gift,” he continued. “And a source of really great pride.”

“Barry treats his students as equals,” Jones wrote. “I always felt that I could speak up confidently in Barry’s classes because he would take anything I said seriously… [he] is an exceptionally patient and encouraging teacher.”

The ultimate tribute and testament to that, of course, is that a number of Cytron’s students at Macalester decided to follow in his professional footsteps.

“I would imagine,” Jones wrote, “that Macalester has produced many more rabbinical and Jewish life professionals under Barry’s tenure than in any other time in its history.”

“I’m glad I didn’t get in the way,” Cytron said. “There’s a cynical side of me that says they looked at what I do and said, ‘Oh shit, if he can do that, I can definitely do that!’ It’s a quite wonderful group — an extraordinary group — of Mac alums.”

“When I think about how I ended up here,” said Sara Sandmel ’13, who is starting rabbinical school at Hebrew College in the fall, “I feel like Barry didn’t exactly give me a concrete push, but just sort of affirmed me as a leader and as somebody who could come up with my own ideas and kept moving me forward in a way that allowed me to find myself on this path.”

“I actually got an email from him recently, kind of doing his own reflection on his time at Macalester,” Forster-Smith said, “and he named four or five students that we both worked with who had chosen to go to rabbinical school.”

“The email was just oozing with joy at this outcome — not that rabbinical students were the only students that he engaged with, but there is something so incredibly gratifying about being able to influence to take up the work that you do, that we do.”

But it wasn’t just in sending students to rabbinical schools where Cytron had an impact on the landscape of religious studies at Macalester.

“I remember that there was one year here where we had five honors theses and four of them were in Jewish studies,” Drake said. “It just shows the impact that he had in our department… many of the high-caliber students were studying with Barry and studying Judaism.”

“For us in the department, what was so special was to have somebody with a very rigorous, scholarly understanding of the Jewish tradition — and sometimes fairly critical — but he also expressed to students his affection for his religious heritage and tradition. Students always responded to that very positively,” Laine said

Drake said that the religious studies department would like to see a full-time chair in Jewish studies. If that day comes, it will be in large part due to Cytron’s work during his time at Macalester.

Cytron’s impact on the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL) and in the campus’ broader religious life will also continue to reverberate.

When Kelly Stone came to Macalester as the new College Chaplain in 2014, the CRSL was going through a fairly turbulent period marked by staff turnover. Cytron was a constant.

“One of the things Barry probably won’t tell you is that he was a great stabilizing force for this office in the face of a lot of transition over the last maybe six years,” Stone said. “And that’s not insignificant.”

Stone still has the gift basket Cytron gave her when she arrived at the school.

When, due to a lack of interest, the school wanted to transition its Hebrew House to the current Interfaith House, Cytron was instrumental in facilitating the change. “Plenty of [Jewish] students have probably lived in Hebrew House long enough,” he would quip.

Fittingly, it will take two people to replace Cytron — a professor of Jewish studies, and a Jewish chaplain.

“It was a unique position to have one foot in the chapel and one foot here [in religious studies]. Not many people could pull that off,” Laine said. “It’s the like balance he has between his academic self and his rabbi self — maybe his American self and his Jewish self. I always found that he had kind of the perfect balance in these matters.”

But even beyond the intellect and grace, there was a striking and deeply moving emotional realness to Cytron and the way he went about his work.

“Some of my first impressions of Barry were how gentle and kind of a soul he was,” Stone said. “That’s something every day I work with him I’m reminded of. He has just a real earnestness in being with and being there for people.”

Forster-Smith recounted an experience during a spring break retreat with a group of Senior Keystone students during her time at the school.

“We were watching a film called ‘Avalon’,” Forster-Smith said. “It was Barry’s idea to watch this film, and I will never forget Barry sitting in that circle afterwards and being almost moved to tears by the way students were talking about their families and their lives and about trying to be in the world and trying to hold brokenness in their lives.”

“And he was also bringing these rare insights of his Jewish rabbinical wisdom — this hope out of brokenness — that he was so good at drawing out,” she continued. “It was such a privilege to be a colleague observing and also participating in that work.”

Sandmel called him a “gift” to the school. But for all that Cytron has given Macalester, Macalester has given Cytron plenty in exchange.

“I know that this has been the favorite chapter of his career,” Naomi Cytron said. “What he loves most is honest and deep intellectual exploration, and being at Macalester has enabled that and given him the freedom to learn all sorts of new things.”

Cytron himself said that the time he spent as rabbi with his congregation in Des Moines — “the first people who took me seriously” — is his favorite. But there is no question that Macalester has had an incredible impact on Cytron’s journey.

“A couple of years ago — three years ago — one our children who lives here in town was relocated for work purposes to Canada, to Toronto, and it was right as their child, our eldest granddaughter, was preparing for her bat mitzvah,” Cytron said.

“And we ended up having the service here at the chapel, upstairs,” he continued. “I think people report that it was the first and only bat mitzvah ever held on the Macalester campus. For our family, it was a fairly spectacular event.”

Cytron said his family was taken both with the beauty of the campus in August, as well as the friendliness and helpfulness of the students they encountered. Some even attended the bat mitzvah.

“It was Mac in the way that our family will always think of it,” Cytron said. “A gracious and endearing community that welcomed a bunch of strangers into its life … this is a quite remarkable place.”

“He loves this place,” Stone said. “He loves what it stands for in the world. The thought of leaving this place actually almost breaks his heart. So it’s really bittersweet for him to leave work that he loves and step into this next phase of his life.”

As for that next phase? “He’s not going to sit around and put his heels up,” Naomi Cytron said. “I know that he’s got some plans to be engaged with interfaith leadership development for Minnesota clergy. I can’t imagine him ever stopping working. That’s just not in his D.N.A.”

Traveling? “I’m probably not going to get on a United Airlines flight, that’s for sure,” Cytron said. “Maybe we’ll drive.”

If he does, Cytron will have plenty of people to see. His connections — both in the Twin Cities and around the country —were the stuff of legend.

Drake said that, one year, a student was in Cytron’s office saying that he wanted to work for a tech company, to which Cytron replied, ‘Well, I actually know someone who works at one of these firms in California…’ The person he knew? It was Facebook CCO Sheryl Sandberg’s late husband Dave Goldberg.

A place like Macalester has seen plenty of great teachers. Why did Cytron make such an indelible mark? Drake, in fielding that question, took a long pause — and then broke into a wide smile.

“Because,” she said. “It’s Barry.”

April 28, 2017

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