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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Heart and soul of the Chaplaincy

Published: January 16, 2009
Section: Features

Chaplaincy:  Chaplaincy Department Administrator Ellie Afienko works closely with all four chaplains: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim.  Afienko has worked in the Chaplaincy for 30 years and has watched the department expand from three to four chaplains. <br /><i>PHOTO BY Jodi Elkin/The Hoot</i>

Chaplaincy: Chaplaincy Department Administrator Ellie Afienko works closely with all four chaplains: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim. Afienko has worked in the Chaplaincy for 30 years and has watched the department expand from three to four chaplains.
PHOTO BY Jodi Elkin/The Hoot

Walking the halls of the Chaplaincy is like walking into biting winter air. Jackets and gloves are required in this chilly corner of campus, but one soul warms up the whole department: Department Administrator Ellen Afienko.

Everyone calls her Ellie. This jovial mix of Italian and Irish heritage is the fireplace of the chaplaincy and the Mary Tyler Moore of Brandeis. In her own view she serves as a “good spokesperson or good welcoming place where people can feel comfortable when they come into the chaplaincy.”

Sitting in a borrowed office, Afienko forfeited the high swivel chair adjacent to the office desk and took right to the comfy couch. A simple action on the surface, but one you understand better after sitting with her for some time.

This room holds special significance, Afienko explained. It serves as the office of current interim Rabbi Elyse Winick ’86: the rabbi who once attended Brandeis; the young woman she witnessed grow into the wife and mother she is today. Just like all of “my students,” as she calls them, Winick fills Afienko with great pride.

Over the 30 years she’s worked at Brandeis, people and buildings have come and gone, but Afienko has been the one consistency within the Chaplaincy.

She’s witnessed the department grow from three chaplains-Catholic, Protestant and Jewish-to include a fourth, Muslim chaplain.

She’s also watched more than seven Brandeis graduating classes pass through the university. Because of this long tenure, Afienko “probably loves this university even more than any alum ever could,” Rabbi Winick said.

With the warmth of a good friend you’ve known for ages, Afienko talked of the changes she’s seen since she started at Brandeis part-time, the very nature of her job in the Chaplaincy and her love for her work.

Employed by both the Chaplaincy and Hillel, Afienko reports to a slew of people on any given day. She oversees budgetary concerns, schedules transportation for chaplaincy excursions and writes contracts, among other tasks. “I’m sort of the clearinghouse, the middleperson,” she explained.

How does Afienko juggle all of this? Maybe her organizational skills come from the time management course she took when her two children were younger. Afienko ensures that chaplaincy-sponsored events run smoothly, addressing any last minute issues that come up.

But she doesn’t sit at a desk for eight hours and she isn’t tied to her chair all day. In fact, Afienko much prefers the one on one interaction with others that her job affords her.

<i>PHOTO BY Jodi Elkin/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Jodi Elkin/The Hoot

“I don’t think I’d be happy working at a ‘business business.’ I enjoy so much working in a job where [the] human element is there…I don’t think I could just sit at a desk and deal with paper; I need to do this [human] interaction,” she said.

This news junkie and Millis resident is never too busy to listen to a student in need and over the years has literally been the shoulder to cry on and friendly face for many a student–Rabbi Winick included.

As a Brandeis undergraduate and later a member of Hillel, Rabbi Winick often ran into Afienko in the halls of the chaplaincy and instantly noticed her “deep sense of concern for students.”

When she returned to Brandeis as a staff member of Hillel in the early 1990s, many aspects of Brandeis had certainly changed, but for Winick, Afienko was still the same “supportive, listening ear” she’d always been. “[Afienko] has an incredible quality of making students feel welcome,” Rabbi Winick said. “People like that are few and far between.”

To Afienko, working with students and helping them through any difficulties they might have during their time at Brandeis is just as important as guiding them through their academic endeavors.

“That’s really the key to the chaplaincy: that we realize that it’s just not an academic adventure, it’s an emotional and personal journey and we need to help our students along on that journey in any way that we can,” she said.

And there are no deals with the devil to sign in this corner of campus. “We’re the one office, I say to people, where you don’t have to fill out a form, where you don’t have to sign your life away, so to speak. We’re here to answer your questions, to make you comfortable,” Afienko said.

Working with interfaith and diversity, Afienko explained that the chaplaincy works “not only with the individual groups, but also trie[s] to bring those groups together for different programs… so one gets to know the other and they can interact.”

This Catholic has learned a lot from the several faiths filling the Brandeis campus and feels as though she is “a part of every single religion on this campus through osmosis.” “I think [exposure to other religions] just makes me a better person…It is such a treat to be able to have really a diverse group of people to deal with on a daily basis and to learn about the various customs and traditions that they uphold,” she said.

Working in a collegiate setting is natural for Afienko, whose mother was a teacher. Before starting at Brandeis, Afienko worked in Boston at the antipoverty agency Action for Boston Community Development as a teaching assistant.

“The topping on the cake is to meet the students when they’re [first-years] and see their excitement there… [and] walk with them in some small way through their journey here,” she explained.

But you better make sure you can keep pace while walking with this avid speed walker. And don’t take offense if she slides on her headphones and drowns you out with her 60s music.

As she says, she’s a very sociable person, but has to keep moving. So try to catch up if you can.