Building community



December 27, 2018

Seth Katz, 55, developed a passion for the complexity and vibrancy of Judaism at University of Chicago Hillel.

“It’s where I discovered that Judaism is something you do,” Katz said. “And I realized why we’re a part of this 3,000-year-old tradition.”

Inspired by his time as a Hillel student, Katz assumed the role of volunteer executive director of Bradley Hillel in 1998, balancing the position with his career as an English professor at Bradley University, where he has taught since 1992.

His instinct was to replicate his enriching experience at UChicago Hillel — text study, bagel brunches, Shabbat minyanim. Although some of his ideas gained traction, he quickly realized that Jewish students at Bradley had different needs than his peers at UChicago.

“I learned by failing,” Katz said. “It was all on-the-job training.”

With the aid of his wife, Barb, Bradley Hillel became a “Ma and Pa Hillel,” ready to intimately serve the roughly 200 Jewish students on campus.

Over the years, they’ve helped students explore Judaism on their own terms. And for Katz, it’s the little things that remind him why he became a volunteer executive director. 

When he passes by the kitchen, packed with sticky-handed students kneading dough for challah, he remembers why he volunteers his time. When he enters the upstairs chapel, greeted by the unison of student voices on Shabbat, he remembers why he volunteers his time. When he attends the weekly Bagel Brunch, bustling with hungry students, he remembers why he volunteers his time.

No matter the event or program, each one is helping to build Jewish community on campus, he said. And that’s what matters.

After serving as a solo professional for more than two decades, Katz is now working alongside the first paid, full-time employee at Bradley Hillel. Matt Lorch, formerly assistant director of University of Oklahoma Hillel, assumed the role of director of student life in July.

“Things I’d given up trying, Matt is trying with fresh eyes and fresh relationships,” Katz said. “He understands that in order to be successful, you have to know your students. You have to live on their turf and be willing to listen.”

Even with the hire of a full-time professional, Katz isn’t ending his 21-year stint as a volunteer executive director. Nowadays, he balances his responsibilities at Bradley Hillel with his career as an associate professor of English and an associate chair of the Department of English at Bradley.

“Hillel Judaism was very meaningful to my wife and I at UChicago, and we wanted to pass that on,” Katz said. “We wanted to help foster that kind of community for students who are finding their way from Jewish children to Jewish adults.”