By Noam Weinblatt
Hillel presented eight exceptional Hillel professionals with its Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award for their outstanding commitment to fulfilling Hillel’s mission of service to Jewish students around the globe. The awards were given at Hillel Institute, a conference of Hillel professionals held at Washington University in St. Louis, August 10-13.
“These Exemplars are in various stages of their careers, hold different positions and hail from a variety of Hillels and communities,” says Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone. “They are all committed to enriching the lives of our students and ensuring that every facet of Hillel reflects a culture of excellence.”
The award, named in honor of former Hillel President Richard M. Joel, is presented to individuals who emulate Joel’s devotion to professionalism, extraordinary faithfulness to Jewish principles, a profound interest in the welfare of friends and colleagues, and a passion for connecting new generations to the joy of Jewish living.
The exemplars are:
Marni Blitz, Assistant Director at Princeton Hillel
Blitz understands that meaningful Jewish experiences and developing relationships go hand in hand. Her passion for Judaism is genuinely inspiring. Students appreciate her warmth and enthusiasm. Blitz’s supervisor said, “Marni is a true thought partner who balances strategic insight with practical wisdom, helping to envision future directions while recommending a reasonable pace for growth and new initiatives.”
Shana Teig Kantor.
Shana Teig Kantor, Executive Director at Hillel Binghamton
An experienced Hillel professional, Kantor brings a strategic approach to Hillel’s work, figuring out how to engage more students with fewer resources. Her vision has led to an explosion of participation in the Hillel’s Freshman Orientation, expanding the impact Hillel has on students from the moment they step on campus. Kantor has demonstrated how to balance the demands of a growing family and an expanding campus program. Even the Binghamton’s vice president of student affairs said, “Shana’s efforts distinguish Hillel among student organizations by its deep and enduring commitment to community service,” adding that he “frequently consults with Kantor to help develop the university’s own alternative breaks.”
Sheila Katz, Assistant Director for Jewish Student Life at North Carolina Hillel
Katz is a natural bridge builder with infectious enthusiasm, compassion and charisma. She is strongly committed to the values and growth of Hillel, not just in her local environment, but also more broadly for the field. When presented with a critical need for program processionals, she helped organize a grassroots initiative to address the problem. A colleague wrote that Katz “is profoundly sensitive to the power of language and non-verbal cues that welcome or alienate students.” From a diverse Jewish journey that included years teaching through Teach for America, Katz draws on past experience to continue to be innovative in her work.
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman.
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Executive Director at Berkeley Hillel
Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman is a humble leader who inspires others to act positively through compassion, kindness and poise. He believes in the importance of strategic and authentic relationships on campus and in the community that can lead to positive and constructive dialogue. Colleagues have said that he is insightful, intellectual and innovative, managing complex situations while also advancing Hillel’s engagement efforts through the development of meaningful relationships. His campus was recognized by the Israel on Campus Coalition for its work in preventing a passage of an anti-Israel divestment resolution.
Rabbi David “DKom” Komerofsky.
Rabbi David Komerofsky, Executive Director at Texas Hillel Foundation
Vision, humor, and generosity of spirit are at the core of Komerofsky’s efforts to energize Hillel. He has been able to balance the needs of a large state university Hillel and to give it a new fresh identity. As someone who understands true partnership, Komerofsky continues to explore how to diversify Hillel’s funding sources. He is able to balance the ebb and flow of making difficult decisions while maintaining a sense of joy and humor in any situation. As a result of his leadership, every Taglit-Birthright returnee receives contact from Hillel within five days of returning to campus, inviting them to share what has been exciting and challenging about their “reentry” into campus life.
Rabbi Danielle Leshaw.
Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, Rabbi and Director at Ohio University Hillel
Rabbi Leshaw harnesses every possible resource to ensure that Hillel engages students in breadth and depth. With a strong commitment to Israel, she is already preparing plans for a unique immersive experience in summer 2011. Despite having only 600 Jewish students on campus, Rabbi Leshaw continues to mentor Peer Network interns which engaged nearly 200 students this past academic year. She is well respected by her local Jewish community and across North America for giving a strong voice to small and mighty Hillels.
Rabbi Dan Smokler.
Rabbi Dan Smokler, Senior Jewish Educator at the Edgar Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU
At the beginning of his Hillel career, Rabbi Smokler pioneered a new methodology of engagement, bringing Torah to life, on several small and mighty campuses. Since then, he has become a magnet for Jewish life, continually adapting to the changing environment of the college campus. Rabbi Smokler understands what it means to build networks and micro-communities. In interactions with students, he is careful to not shy away from difficult questions while still allowing students to steer the conversations. A colleague noted that Rabbi Smokler loves to provoke and challenge while simultaneously setting the stage for safe and open dialogue. Rabbi Smokler was recently featured in the largest Jewish newspaper in North America for creating a conference of scholars to discuss the creation of a unique field of Jewish education for emerging adults.
Olga Tovkach, Director at Dnepropetrovsk Hillel
Tovkach is a genuine model for others to learn and grow. She has an uncanny ability to relate to others and is wonderful at welcoming students, new and old. A professional who has transformed Hillel to become a center for Jewish life on campus, Tovkach focuses on preserving the past while looking toward the future. One colleague noted that she harmoniously combines creativity with rationalism, a big vision with punctuality in details. Always looking to lead and develop staff, Tovkach creates professional development opportunities through scheduling regular learning sessions and other educational opportunities.
Noam Weinblatt is a Hillel communications intern and a rising junior at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Reprinted by permission from the St. Louis Jewish Light.
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