‘The Masa-Hillel cohort opened up this whole world to me’
Megan Garrett, assistant director of University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) Hillel, has fond memories of living near the shores of Netanya, Israel. Each morning began with a fresh boureka from a shop tucked underneath her apartment and a four-mile bike ride to Tel Nordau Elementary School, where she helped fourth and fifth graders strengthen their English skills.
She spent most of 2014 in Netanya with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, an experience for Jewish college graduates seeking volunteer, teaching and learning opportunities in Israel.
For Garrett, one highlight was participating in the inaugural Masa-Hillel Fellowship, a six-month professional development seminar offered by Hillel International to equip Masa participants for Hillel positions. She learned to engage new people in conversation and enhanced her interview techniques — skills she still relies on when chatting with students or interviewing job candidates at CU Boulder Hillel.
A career as a Jewish professional was a new idea for Garrett. As a member of one of the only Jewish families in her hometown of Welch, West Virginia, where the closest synagogue was nestled in the mountains an hour away, Garrett knew little about Jewish life, let alone Jewish jobs.
“The Masa-Hillel cohort opened up this whole world to me,” Garrett said. “As I started learning more about Hillel, I realized I could turn my passion for the Jewish journey into a profession. This was the place I wanted to be.”
After completing her fellowship, Garrett became a Hillel professional at Indiana University, rising from engagement associate to program director to assistant director over the course of three years.
Since 2014, the Masa-Hillel Fellowship has created a talent pipeline, populating Hillels across the nation with budding leaders who have strong connections with Judaism and Israel. Over 100 Masa alumni have shaped their careers at Hillel, crediting their preparedness with the high level of professional development they received as fellows.
Garrett has continued her Hillel work in the rugged mountains of Colorado, where she serves as assistant director of CU Boulder Hillel. An additional job perk is working closely with Seth Reder — a friendly face from her days as a Masa-Hillel Fellow.
Reder, executive director of CU Boulder Hillel, said his experience as a fellow jumpstarted his career with Hillel. Upon returning from a 10-month stint in Israel, where he taught English to underprivileged elementary and middle schoolers, Reder has held various Hillel roles, including director of Jewish student life at Central Florida Hillel and associate director of leadership programs for Hillel U at Hillel International.
“The fellowship gave me the tools and confidence to be a Jewish leader,” he said. “I didn’t have a Hillel as a student, but now I know just how powerful the impact can be.”
Living in a foreign country, where the language and culture differed from his own, taught him to be adaptable and calm under pressure. Those skills have been invaluable as Reder has reshaped Jewish programming amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“As we are seeing with the threat of COVID-19, community is more important now than ever,” Reder said. “And providing students with opportunities to stay connected with a community is of the utmost importance.”
In addition to honing his professional skillset, Reder said his time in Israel also introduced him to his favorite Hillel professional — his wife.
Deborah Reder, who taught English to elementary schoolers at an underprivileged school in Netanya, was appointed as assistant director of the Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia when she completed her program with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows.
“I didn’t realize Jewish professional leadership existed beyond synagogues,” Deborah said. “The Masa-Hillel Fellowship showed me that I could remain in the world of education, but through a different lens.”
Now, Deborah has a role at Hillel International, where she has spent two years as the BICEP (Building Israel Connections Engagement Project) Israel engagement director.
The Reders, before obtaining their current roles, took hiatuses from Hillel to pursue secular professions in education. However, their passion for strengthening Jewish student connectivity motivated them to return to the Hillel family with the intention of staying.
The couple said they also appreciate the balance of professional and personal lives — a Hillel value that helps attract talented candidates. For the Reders, Hillel is supportive of their growing family, offering flexible hours and work-from-home opportunities that allow the young couple to care for their two young girls, Hannah, 2, and Lily, 5 months.
“I love the family-oriented values of our organization,” Seth Reder said. “Our children are able to come to a meeting or a program, and because of that, we’ve been able to attend many CU Boulder Hillel events as a family.”
Garrett, who also left Hillel briefly to pursue another education position with students, said the prioritization of work-life balance, professional development opportunities and the positive company culture encouraged her to return to Hillel. And she’s hoping to stay as well.
“Hillel invests in us as people,” Garrett said. “I feel supported to give it my all.”
Emma Lorsch, a Hillel International Springboard Innovation Fellow at Boston University Hillel, completed her Masa-Hillel Fellowship last year while living in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English to elementary school students. Lorsch said the experience developed her skills as a flexible professional who can adapt and respond to change — quickly.
On campus, and nowadays over Zoom, Lorsch pivots from engaging newbie students over a cup of coffee to helping seasoned student leaders create meaningful Jewish programs, such as a wellness retreat and a volunteer opportunity with isolated senior citizens. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, she has also played the role of supporter and comforter for those struggling with isolation.
“My students are what makes this work so meaningful. They energize me every day,” Lorsch said. “Each week, this position grows with more purpose, and I’m excited to dive into my next year at Hillel.”
With the recent approval from Israel’s interior ministry, Israel’s skies are now open only to Israeli citizens and Masa Fellows. Head to masaisrael.org to find the right program to start your journey and get ahead in this crazy new world.