The Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University welcomed three new program staffers this fall, including Slav Leibin, the campus’s first Israel fellow.
Leibin, whose position is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel International, started in early August, when he accompanied 21 students on the annual Birthright Israel trip.
“Slav adds an exciting new dimension to the CJL staff and enables us to maintain an impressive student/staff ratio that fosters engagement of more than 75 percent of the Jewish undergraduates at Princeton,” said CJL executive director Rabbi Julie Roth.
Also joining the staff are educators Rabbi Elie and Ilana Bercuson, bringing to three the number of full-time rabbis serving the center’s Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform communities.
The Princeton Hillel is one of only 16 in North America participating in the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, under whose aegis the couple has been posted to CJL. Seif is a cooperative program run by Hillel International and the Orthodox Union.
The Bercusons see their role at CJL as strengthening Jewish life on campus. “We both recognize that the years Jewish students spend at college are very formative, not only for intellectual and social reasons, but no less so for their Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Bercuson.
He said the couple’s home will be open to students. “It all has to do with personal relationships,” he said. “Ideally students are comfortable with us not only as educators and authorities in matters of Jewish tradition but equally, they see us as mentors and even to a certain degree as peers.”
The couple are relatively close in age to the students — he is 30, Ilana 27.
In just the few weeks they’ve been on the job, said Roth, “Elie and Ilana have met dozens of Jewish students at the CJL and have hosted several wonderful, delicious meals at their home.”
The Bercusons will offer classes on Shabbat afternoon, sermons, lunch programs, or chats over coffee, “according to whatever schedule the students find convenient,” said Elie Bercuson.
A native of Ottawa, Elie Bercuson studied philosophy and classics at Carleton University in Ottawa and earned a master of arts in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University. He was ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, and is awaiting ordination from Yeshiva University.
Ilana Bercuson grew up in Highland Park and went to high school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union (now Golda Och Academy) in West Orange. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a BS in family studies and a minor in Jewish studies and then studied Jewish texts at Nishmat in Jerusalem. She has worked in development at Hadassah, and as part of the rabbinic intern couple at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. She recently completed a master’s in educational psychology at Hunter College.
Elie Bercuson emphasized that he and his wife are not serving in an outreach capacity but to promote a traditional Jewish life on campus for those who want it. They do serve as the religious authorities for the Orthodox community on campus but, he added quickly, “especially in a place like Princeton, which is relatively small, it is crucially important that we have good relationships with all Jewish students on campus.”
The Bercusons are also involved in the effort to build an eruv, or Shabbat boundary, that will allow observant students to carry objects outside of their dorm rooms on Shabbat.
“One of our larger goals is to continue to make Princeton an attractive location for Jews of any stripe and create a critical mass of Jews of all different denominations, so that when a Jew comes to Princeton and affiliates Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, they feel they are already part of a community,” he said.
Leibin, 26, said his role is to educate students about Israel and maintain their engagement.
He said that many students have come back from programs in Israel like Birthright and gap years, and his presence will enable them to both preserve their language skills and to learn about Israel beyond the headlines. His first program, on Yom Kippur, was about the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Regarding the politics of Israel, he is open to all views and opinions. “I am not in a position to judge or impose my political views on other people; I am trying to make them think about their own opinions,” he said.
Leibin said that he has several ideas to advance his campus mission: among them, to organize a bigger Israel Independence Day program, to establish a new Hebrew-speaking table, and to increase engagement with the non-Jewish community.
He also foresees lots of one-on-one opportunities for students to ask questions or get advice if they want to make aliya or join the Israeli army after they graduate.
Born in Belarus, Leibin made aliya with his family in 1991 and grew up in Netanya. In the IDF, he served for three years as a recruiting commander, responsible for building educational programs and training future military commanders. He studied international relations and communications at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and has completed the Stand With Us fellowship that trains young leaders in Israel advocacy. For two years he worked as a tour guide and diplomat liaison in the Knesset.