Of the many life lessons Cantor Bob Scherr has instilled in the College community, one in particular describes his time here best: don’t be afraid of getting lost, especially when it leads to a new adventure. This has proven true in his adventures to different countries as well as getting lost on his first campus visit when being interviewed for a job in the Chaplain’s office at the College.
Twelve years ago, Scherr arrived in Williamstown for an on-campus interview. “I did it just because, why not? If someone offers you an interview and you’re looking for a job, why not?” he said. “I was intrigued by the idea of a Jewish chaplain, although I didn’t know what that would mean.”
Getting turned around at night on Route 2 and not being able to find his way back to the Williams Inn during his first trip to Williamstown did not deter him from connecting with the College. After meeting with Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding, psychological services, the Health Center, the Davis Center and students of Jewish and non-Jewish faith, Scherr “started to get the picture that this job wasn’t just about the Jewish community; it was about being the Jewish chaplain for the College, and that became really intriguing,” he said.
Thus, a 12-year adventure full of teaching, learning and meaningful relationships with students, faculty and staff was born. In his role as Jewish chaplain, “Cantor Bob” has done more than many people realize. There were many visible aspects of his role, such as being present at and helping with all Jewish services and using his talents in the kitchen to ensure that Shabbat dinner was ready every Friday night. He sat in on board meetings for the Williams College Jewish Association, giving advice and using his connections within and beyond the College to help plan events and celebrate holidays. During services one could always hear his beautiful singing voice holding everything together or teaching new tunes for old songs.
Of the many things Scherr has learned throughout his time at the College, it does not matter how good a leader’s voice is during prayers was one. “It’s just kind of noise, but it’s such joyful noise that I get a big kick out of it,” he said with a smile. “That’s something that I’ll really miss – is the enthusiasm of people for their participation and finding meaning in prayer in that way. For me, it’s also ceding to someone else’s aesthetic. The students embrace it … and have enthusiasm for it. It’s the enthusiasm of prayer which is more important than the aesthetic of prayer. And I think I learned a lot about that from students.”
In addition to seeing Scherr as a religious leader, students have also gotten to see another side of Scherr, that of a confidante, support system, advisor and friend. At a dinner celebrating his time at the College on Jan. 8 in the Faculty House, students spoke about how welcome he has made them feel, regardless of their religious background or affiliation, how understanding he is and how he opened his door to anyone who needed to talk. This door was not only open for students, but faculty and staff as well, and on Jan. 31, his official last day at the College, faculty and staff were given a chance to speak about Scherr’s impact on them during their time working together at the College.
While it is clear that Scherr has left a lasting impression on the College community, the community has also shaped him. “I will miss the people,” he said. “I will miss the personal growth that I was able to experience because I learned so many things from students.”
One important lesson Scherr learned is that not all programs have to be great. “The best piece of advice I got was to let students make mistakes. You can’t really do that in a congregational setting. Everything [in a congregation] is expected to be wonderful, but students are accustomed to failure,” he said. “It’s such a healthy thing, to know that you can try something and not be really successful, or not be really successful at first.”
Of the many programs he has run, among the most successful have been his Winter Study Jerusalem trip, which takes 10 students to Israel for 12 days to learn about the city and its various people, and the Chaplains’ interfaith spring Break Out Trip (BOT) to Tuscaloosa, Ala., which pairs Habitat for Humanity work with conversations about religion. The faith-based discussions during the BOT grew out of the interfaith work at the College, of which Scherr was fond.
“Those [interfaith] conversations are sometimes so amazing, as people play off of ideas that they share with one another,” he said. Scherr has particularly enjoyed “finding how much folks have in common for their quest for prayer, for spiritual values, what the connection is of their sacred writings to contemporary life.”
While Scherr will miss the conversations and the people he has met at the College, he feels as though his retirement is a part of the natural flow of people through the Purple Valley. “The college community changes a lot, and I think that as a student, I imagine, you’re so caught up with your own four years of trying to squeeze everything out of the College and then just leave us behind. That’s the way this institution goes,” he said.
Scherr and his wife, Susie, don’t plan on leaving Williamstown just yet. Ultimately, they will move to Washington, D.C. to be closer to their two daughters, and especially their 1-year-old grandson, Oliver. In the meantime, Scherr will enjoy his time here and embrace whatever new adventure presents itself, taking with him all of the lessons learned and relationships made at the College.