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YU Profiles: The Making of a President — The Story of Nolan Edmonson

YU Profiles: The Making of a President — The Story of Nolan Edmonson

By: Yosef Lemel and Michael Weiner | Features  |  March 31, 2019
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Growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, Nolan Edmonson (YC ‘19) would not have been your typical candidate for future president of the Yeshiva Student Union (YSU). Born to lifelong Southern Baptists and raised in a devout Christian home, he had never even heard of Yeshiva University in the early years of his life. The Commentator recently sat down with Nolan in order to hear his story and how he came to his current position in life.

Though born in New Jersey, both sides of Nolan’s family had deep roots in North Carolina. His mother’s family had been there “since the Revolutionary War,” Nolan noted, and he has ancestors who were slaves in the state as well.

Religion, however, was a constant in the family. The Edmonsons had always been committed Southern Baptists. Going to church every Sunday was what you did, and reading the Bible was a normal part of life. That all changed with Nolan.

As a child, Nolan was curious about everything, including religion. He attended Montclair public schools from kindergarten to sixth grade, and regularly interacted with Jewish friends from school. Early exposure to Jewish practices included show-and-tell displays of Jewish holidays and personal encounter with Jewish ritual. One such significant experience was at the age of eight, when Nolan was invited to a friend’s house on the first night of Chanukah. “I was somehow drawn to the story of Chanukah,” said Edmonson. “Something about the idea of a group of downtrodden people being redeemed through their own deeds and through a supernatural power resonated with me. I think that was one aspect of the Jewish story that stuck with me.”

This exposure to Judaism piqued Nolan’s interest, and, by age eleven, he was reading any book he could find on the topic to better understand the religion.

Nolan later attended St. Benedict’s Prep, a Catholic high school in Newark, New Jersey. At St. Benedict’s, Nolan was enamored by the priests who taught there for their dedication to the monastic life, which entails giving up certain worldly pleasures and living a life of chasteness. He was also inspired by the Catholic social teaching, a major element of the school’s religious curriculum, which emphasizes loving one’s fellow man and caring deeply about the suffering of others. The headmaster of the school, Father Edwin Leahy, taught and volunteered in segregated towns in Alabama in the 1960s to protest the injustices there. Even though Leahy is white, he felt that it was his responsibility to help out in any way he could, an example which had a profound impact on Nolan’s outlook on life.

Some of those religious values instilled in Nolan through his school and family have stayed with him to this day. The importance of a moral compass — a strongly emphasized aspect of Edmonson’s upbringing — “has definitely shaped who I am today and continues to shape who I am,” Edmonson remarked.

Despite the admiration he held for his Catholic teachers, Nolan still had a certain fascination with Judaism. At the age of 13, he decided that he should experience Judaism firsthand at a synagogue, and through a professional connection of his mother, was invited by a messianic Jew to attend his congregation. Nolan felt comfortable in that synagogue, as it incorporated Christian elements into the standard service. Inspired by that positive experience, Nolan began attending an after-service Hebrew school in the synagogue that taught the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew prayers. Nolan held an edge over the other kids in the Hebrew school, as he had already taught himself the Hebrew language at the age of ten.

Deepening his engagement with Judaism, at age 14, Nolan was invited by an Orthodox family — who were clients of his mother — to stay at their house for Shabbos on a regular basis, and attended the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center (SSTC) of Livingston, New Jersey. Subsequently, he fell in with an Orthodox Jewish crowd and lived a “typical Modern Orthodox lifestyle,” aside from his education. He stayed with the same family for Shabbat nearly every week during his high school years and beyond.

Rabbi Mordechai Feuerstein, the rabbi of the SSTC at the time, and his wife were two impactful figures on Nolan’s life. According to Nolan, Rabbi Feuerstein is a prime example of a community leader who is also “quite the Torah scholar.” Rebbetzin Feuerstein, who was battling cancer at the time, proved to be a great source of inspiration to Nolan, who saw her as a “religious figure who — despite the unfortunate cards she was dealt — saw herself as someone with a lesson to teach.”

Nolan decided to live openly as a Jew in his Catholic high school. This meant wearing a kippah and observing Jewish rituals. His classmates never gave him a second look because they assumed he was actually Jewish. Nolan found his classmates to be very accepting of who he was.

Nolan’s parents were quite surprised by his dramatic religious transformation. While initially they were concerned about their son’s rejection of Christian doctrine and faith, after much deliberation, they came to accept Nolan’s decision. They understood that Nolan’s life was his own to lead, and the path of Judaism was the path he chose for himself. Additionally, their religious faith led them to view Nolan’s choice to convert as the will of God, and a reflection of divine providence. Finally, they saw that the Jewish friends that Nolan was hanging out with — who were primarily from Kushner and SSTC — were well-mannered and had a positive influence on him.

At age 16, Nolan made the decision to fully go through with the conversion. After consulting his family and rabbis, it was decided that he would undergo the conversion when he turned 18 — the age where he would legally be able to make the decision to convert for himself. On June 2, 2014, the day after graduating high school, Nolan Edmonson officially converted to Judaism. Nolan explains that he took on the Jewish name of Noam Akiva, partly because it fit with his secular name of Nolan Alexander, and partly because of the reverence he held for the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, who became a Torah scholar relatively late in his life.

Compared to most other converts — and especially converts of color — Nolan’s conversion process was smooth and seamless. He believes that this was a result of having a “fantastic support system.” “I had a family who loved me, and I had a community which was really behind me, and I had this family in Livingston who I became really close with,” said Edmonson. “I had a bunch of people in my corner.”

After converting, Nolan generally found the Jewish community to be supportive and accepting of him. However, he occasionally faced unsolicited remarks in certain communities. Once, on Simchat Torah, a gabbai in a synagogue was giving out aliyot and asked Nolan — who was dressed like everyone else — “are you Jewish?” Other times, he has simply been approached by strangers after davening and asked, “what’s your story?”

Nolan believes that while the Orthodox community as a whole does a “decent job” of accepting converts of color, there are still instances of individuals in the Orthodox community whose prejudice against African Americans causes them to negatively stereotype converts of color.

After high school, Nolan attended the Aish Gesher program in Israel for two years, which further strengthened his love of Jewish life and learning.

From there, after considering a number of different colleges, Nolan decided to attend Yeshiva University. At YU, in addition to his academic studies, Nolan immediately joined a number of extracurricular clubs and student groups, including the Fencing Team, The Commentator and the College Republicans, of which he was the vice president. In his junior year, he was approached by then-YSU President Zach Sterman (YC ‘18) and was encouraged to join the Canvassing Committee, which oversees student government elections.

On Purim of that year, Dovid Simpser (SSSB ‘18), who was the Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) President at the time, saw that Nolan cared about improving student life on campus and encouraged him to run for the YSU presidency, which Nolan ultimately did. He was motivated to run by a “desire to positively impact all aspects of student life.”

Looking back at his tenure as YSU president, Nolan is proud of a number of accomplishments, chief among them being the recent coed Shabbaton. Though there were lots of obstacles to overcome, Nolan was determined to make it happen, and believes that it went a long way towards “normalizing the relationship between the two campuses.”

Looking ahead, Nolan is unsure what the future holds for him. Graduating this year, he is considering a career in law, and possibly politics. Either way, he is certain that he wants his occupation to be in the service of others, living out the values that his parents instilled in him during his formative years.

Navigating a difficult transition into a completely new world, Nolan has found his place and emerged as a leader in the YU community, and is optimistic that all of his life experience up to this point will prepare him for a bright future.