Rutgers Hillel is gearing up for the new school year with four new staff members, including its first Reform rabbi and first director of Israel engagement.
The four began work on Aug. 10.
Rutgers’ Jewish population, already the fourth-largest at any campus in the country, has increased by 800 to 6,800 this year, according to university officials.
Tzvi Raviv, the new director of Israel engagement, said he hoped to continue practices he developed while serving as Israel fellow/shaliah at the University of California-Irvine, a campus that has gained a national reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment.
“I was privileged to work with a group of students who were highly motivated, and we had a vision of how to bring Israel to the campus,” said the native of Ashkelon, Israel. “I will use the platform given to me by Rutgers Hillel to implement a similar vision.”
Most recently, Raviv was at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where he earned a master’s of business administration in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in Jewish professional leadership.
Raviv’s position is being funded by members of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, and he will be available to any Rutgers campus group and for consultation with other groups at NJ colleges needing assistance in defending and promoting Israel. The position was created in response to a spate of pro-Palestinian activity on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus during the 2010-11 academic year.
Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, a lifelong Los Angeles resident, was lured to the East Coast to become Rutgers Hillel’s first Reform outreach initiative rabbi.
The position was created through a challenge grant from Arthur and Betty Roswell of Bridgewater.
Watenmaker said he was proud to come to Rutgers, “the only campus in the country to not only have a dedicated Reform coordinator, but also with funding dedicated to providing…Reform programming,” said Watenmaker. “The Jewish community of New Jersey is more committed to making sure there is a thriving Jewish life at Rutgers, its state university, than at any place I have seen.”
Watenmaker was recently ordained at Hebrew Union College and has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California and a master’s in Jewish communal service from HUC. He and his wife, Amy Rosenbach Watenmaker, and infant son are currently living with her parents in Springfield.
“My hope is to build a vibrant and meaningful Reform community on campus,” said Watenmaker, who also plans to do outreach to other liberal, progressive, or unaffiliated Jews through the peer engagement provided by Hillel.
“College is a time when a young person may be searching for a Jewish identity that is right for them,” he added. “I consider myself the shaliah of the Reform Jewish community to the larger Jewish community and of the larger Rutgers Jewish community to the Reform community.”
Edison native and Rutgers alumnus Greg Yellin is the new senior engagement-Birthright associate at Hillel.
At Rutgers he will look to engage a greater number of students by expanding activities beyond Hillel headquarters on the main campus, holding events at other Rutgers campuses throughout New Brunswick and Piscataway. Working with other staff, he said, he hopes to increase the number of students participating in Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel. He will also work, he said, to broaden the number of students taking part during semester breaks in social action trips to impoverished areas or those hit by natural disasters, both overseas and in the United States.
A former United Synagogue Youth and Kadima adviser and religious-school instructor at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, Yellin spent the last two years as engagement coordinator at the University of Vermont Hillel.
Regarding his new position, Yellin said, “I already feel connected here. I always thought I would work for Rutgers Hillel. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.”
Lihi Rothschild, a native of Tel Aviv, is the new Jewish Agency Israel fellow. Her position is a joint initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Rutgers Hillel and is being funded by Warren Eisenberg and Leonard Feinstein, cofounders of Bed Bath & Beyond. She will stay two years.
Rothschild came to Rutgers following a stint as an IDF officer and six years working for the Israeli government.
“I believe it is a privilege to be an Israeli and I want to give back to my country and the Jewish people,” she said. “I want to strengthen the bonds between the Jewish people in Israel and New Jersey.”