New Hillel Directors Bring Passion for Jewish Life to Campuses
June 28, 2005Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend The phrase "It was a cold, dark, rainy night" may sound like the beginning of a horror story, but in Adam Simon's case, it led to a happy ending. He was working for an industrial-supply company in Chicago last fall and was searching for a trailer in inclement weather when he got a phone call from longtime friend and mentor Rob Goldberg, Hillel's vice president for campus advancement. Northwestern University Hillel was losing its executive director, and Goldberg, who had supervised Simon when he was a JCSC Fellow and associate director at St. Louis Hillel at Washington University several years before, thought he would be a good candidate for the position.
"I wasn't really looking for this job, but the timing was great!" said Simon, who joined Northwestern University Hillel in February. "Judaism is more than just an opportunity - we have a responsibility to share it. In Hillel, we are able to capture Jewish souls at a time when they are open to learning and asking questions. It's a wonderful responsibility, and I treasure it."
Simon's enthusiasm for working with Jewish students and eagerness to make a difference in their lives is shared by several new Hillel directors who have joined or will join the organization this year. Their diverse range of education and work experience are assets to the campuses they will serve as they balance the demands of programming, fundraising, community-building and providing a welcoming atmosphere for all Jewish students.
"Hillel is honored to bring professionals of such a high caliber to join our team," said Hillel President Avraham Infeld. "Whether they are coming from positions in the Jewish community or the corporate world, the skills and spirit they bring with them will benefit not only the students on their campuses, but their colleagues throughout the field as well."
"The addition of these talented and passionate Jewish professionals is the single most important determinant to our success. I know that their leadership will strengthen their Jewish campus communities, Hillels and the universities," said Scott Brown, Hillel's vice president for human resources.
Like Simon, many of the new directors have worked at Hillel earlier in their careers, though it wasn't necessarily the career path they had envisioned for themselves at first. When Emory Hillel Director Michael Rabkin applied to be a JCSC Fellow at the University of California, San Diego following his college years at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he assumed it would be a one-year gig before he moved onto the dot-com world further north. But his passion for Jewish life grew so strong by the end of his fellowship that he stayed in San Diego for another two years as the program director at UCSD, followed by a two-year stint in the campus strategic services department at Hillel's Schusterman International Center.
"It was a great way to blend my interest in Jewish life with my interest in business," Rabkin said. "But I missed being on campus and wanted to gain the skills I needed to return as a director."
Rabkin's JCSC experience made him eligible to become a Steinhardt Scholar, a Hillel initiative that allowed him to study at New York University's Program in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies for three years and return to work in the Hillel system. At Emory University, where one-third of the undergraduate population is Jewish, he looks forward to working with Hillels of Georgia Executive Director Jacob Schreiber and other colleagues to increase student participation and investment in Hillel.
"I want to have a Hillel program that is intellectual yet sophisticated and hip," Rabkin said. "It's time that we encourage students to go beyond the ice cream social and learn about themselves as young Jews."
Darin Diner, the new executive director of Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach, is also a Hillel veteran, serving as the program director and interim executive director of North Carolina Hillel soon after he graduated from the University of Florida.
"It was an amazing opportunity to dive in headfirst into a world of responsibility, and I loved it," Diner said.
Eager to pursue professional development opportunities, Diner moved to Baltimore to earn a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland and a master's in Jewish studies from Baltimore Hebrew University, and then returned to his native Miami in 1998 to be the community coordinator at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. In 2003, he was appointed director of the reopened Miami Beach Jewish Community Center, where he spearheaded a $15 million capital campaign.
"I built an agency from scratch - no board of directors, no vision, no clear destination - and I see Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach as a step ahead, but it also needs shepherding and goal-setting. I'm fortunate to come into a position that allows me to use those skills," he said.
Further south, Hillel at the University of Miami is also welcoming a new executive director, Joel Berger. After spending most of his career at Miami's Beth Torah Adath Yeshurun Congregation, including the past 10 years as executive director, he is ready to take on new challenges at Hillel.
"I love the synagogue experience, but this was an opportunity to try something new and take the skills I learned and work with students," Berger said.
Working for almost 20 years at the same congregation has helped Berger develop deep roots in the local Jewish community, and he hopes to harness their leadership in strengthening Jewish life for the 2,500 Jewish students at the University of Miami.
"We hope to light a spark and make Hillel a great place to be," Berger said. "We want students to come by and know that it's their Hillel."
An alumnus of Case Western Reserve University, Berger is also among an increasing number of Hillel professionals who have master's degrees in business administration. Northwestern University Hillel's Simon, who holds an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis, says that while such a degree is certainly not essential for a Hillel director, he uses the skills he learned as a business student every day.
"I'm a director with fiscal responsibilities, paid staff and a building to manage. This is a business," Simon said.
And while he is dedicated to securing his campus Hillel's financial future by connecting with donors, Simon also knows that serving students is of utmost importance.
"We need to be there for every Jewish student on campus. We need to be a synagogue, a JCC, an advocacy center and more," he said. "And we have as much responsibility to those who don't care if we're here as those who do."
That's a mantra that Ari Dubin took to heart at Duke University's Freeman Center for Jewish Life, where he served as director for two years, and will bring with him to his new role as executive director at Vanderbilt University Hillel. Helping a small population of Jewish students at one private, Southern university has prepared him well for a similar campus where administrators are making the Jewish community a priority.
"It's very clear that it is a school on the rise and can grow in a short period of time," Dubin said, noting that while 3 percent of Vanderbilt's class of 2004 was Jewish, the figure increased to 13 percent for the class of 2008.
With the three-year-old Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life in a prime location on campus, strong support from lay leaders and a welcoming local community, Dubin is eager to continue Vanderbilt Hillel's vibrant growth. He credits the commitment of the university administration as a major factor in Hillel's success on campus.
"Chancellor Gordon Gee has truly invested to making sure Jewish students look at the university and feel a part of the community," he said. "The idea that the Jewish enrollment can increase in three years like it has is stunning."
Rabbi Serena Eisenberg also found a supportive and warm environment for the next step in her career - and a familiar one, at that. The Brown University graduate will return to her alma mater this summer to lead the Hillel. Eisenberg had wanted to apply for the job back in 2002, right after she received her ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, but she did not want to uproot her family from the San Francisco Bay area, where they had lived for many years. When the former president of Brown Hillel called to say the position was again open, she was thrilled for the opportunity, though still reluctant to move.
"I told everybody that there's a 99 percent chance we'll stay here and a 1 percent chance we'll move, but I wanted to go for an interview anyway," she said. "When I did, I fell in love."
After meeting with students and lay leaders and touring Brown Hillel's home at the year-old Glenn and Marcy Weiner Center, Eisenberg was sold.
"I felt like this would be an opportunity to be a guide - helping students who are interested in finding meaning in their Jewish journey and learning from them, too," she said. "It can be a place where progressive Judaism can flourish and inspire new generations to take Judaism to new heights."
Also joining Hillel this year are new directors Julie Roth at the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University; Rabbi Allison Conyer at Santa Barbara Hillel; Stephen Mercer at University of Southern California Hillel and Allison Wielechowski at Goucher College Hillel.
The new directors will join other incoming Hillel professionals for the annual New Professionals Institute at Hillel's Schusterman International Center in Washington, DC. Attendees can download registration forms and learn more at the NPI Web page.