Arts & Humanities
Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies
Bachelor of Arts in Political Science
Rori Picker Neiss
Rori Picker Neiss is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities. Rori previously served as Acting Executive Director for Religions for Peace-USA, Program Coordinator for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Assistant Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and Secretariat for the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. Rori is the North American Representative to the Religions for Peace Global Youth Network, a member of the board of the Young Leadership Council of the International Council of Christians and Jews, a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders student fellow, and co-editor of “InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook.” She received her bachelor’s degree in religious studies and political science from the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College and has studied at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and Seton Hall University. Rori serves as the Rabbinic Intern at Hunter Hillel and Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Russel, and daughter, Daria. In her spare time she enjoys reading, doing crossword puzzles, and hosting dinner parties.
Why did you choose to major in religious studies?
Growing up, I was always very interested in American history and the American political system, and so one of the first classes I signed up for in college was a political science course, and I declared a political science major early on in my college career. In my junior year, I took a graduate-level course — Approaches to Middle East History — and as I sat among master’s and Ph.D. students, I was shocked to hear people propose solutions to a complex political situation that clearly showed no knowledge or sensitivity to the culture and beliefs of the people living in the region. I wanted to learn more about the people that governments worked with, and I thought the best way to really understand people was to delve deeper into the deep history and nuance of religion.
What did you like about majoring in religious studies?
I loved that the major was a relatively small one, and so, unlike with the political science department, I had personal relationships with all my religion professors, and with the chair of the department. My favorite class (so much so that I took it twice!) was an honors thesis course that met in the professor’s living room, complete with sodas, brownies, and two little dogs sniffing about.
Was there anything that you struggled with while completing this major?
The difficulty with learning religion academically, especially because I was so interested in understanding people better at their core, is that the official policies and creeds of religions are often different from what the average “person in the pew” does and believes. I often struggled with what I was reading in books and what I was being taught in classes in contrast to what my friends were telling me about their lives.
How has your degree influenced and impacted your career?
I have made my career about religion. Immediately after graduating from college, I began to work with an organization called Religions for Peace, which brings together religious communities to work towards peace and justice. Now, I spend my days in school studying towards religious leadership in the Jewish community, but I remain active in interfaith work at the national and international levels.
What are some of the skills you learned while earning your degree that you have been able to apply to your career, and how have you applied them?
Perhaps one of the most important things that I learned while in college was a language of religion. I learned how to convey deep-seated beliefs to others, which has become a crucial part of my interfaith work. What’s more, I also learned the different approaches that people have to religion, as often impacted by their religious language, and how they view their own religion in relation to others and how they view other religions in relation to their own. This has been a focal point in my own understanding as I seek to bring people of different faiths together and to find a language that represents differences and does not ignore beliefs, but still allows people to live together and work together for common causes.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in this major?
When I was in school and people (my friends, my parent’s friends, professors, whoever) asked me what I was studying, and I told them religion, people would often look at me warily and say “And do you expect to get a job with that?” I might as well have told them I was studying how to work an industrial deep-fryer, because that is what they envisioned me doing with the rest of my life. But I not only have made a career of religion, but a successful one of that, complete with a paycheck.
Religion touches so many areas of a person’s life, whether because they come from religious backgrounds, because they are seeking deeper meaning in the world, because they are trying to live according to religious doctrine, or because they are rebelling against religious narratives. Religion has so much to say about our lives and our history — far more than we often want to admit as a society. Don’t let people discourage you from following your passion, and don’t dismiss religion as a random liberal arts major that can’t take you anywhere. You might have to work a bit harder to tell your story (people don’t just nod as easily as they do if you say “pre-med”), but a religion major can offer not just a career in religion, but can also offer you profound insights into medicine, law, history, journalism, art, and countless other areas.