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New location, new faces at Rutgers Hillel
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New location, new faces at Rutgers Hillel

Outreach professionals aim to connect students with Israel and tradition

Rutgers Hillel will begin the new year with new staff members, from left, Sara and Rabbi Adam Frieberg, Rabbi Brandon Bernstein, and Ido Mahatzri.     
Rutgers Hillel will begin the new year with new staff members, from left, Sara and Rabbi Adam Frieberg, Rabbi Brandon Bernstein, and Ido Mahatzri.     

Hillel is getting set to welcome students to the New Brunswick campus with new staff and a new setting.

In interviews with NJJN on Aug. 14, the four new staffers talked about their plans at Hillel’s new temporary site in Miller Hall, where it is being housed while awaiting the expected opening in September 2015 of its $18 million Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House.

The Bishop Place building it used last year has now been demolished as part of a $330 million College Avenue Redevelopment project. 

New on staff are: Sara and Rabbi Adam Frieberg, Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative co-educators; Rabbi Brandon Bernstein, Reform Outreach Initiative rabbi; and Ido Mahatzri, Jewish Agency Israel Fellow. 

The Friebergs, who came to Rutgers from their native Toronto, were drawn by Rutgers’ “vibrant Jewish community,” according to Sara. Most recently she served as coordinator of admissions and marketing for Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto, overseeing both the boys’ and girls’ high schools.

Adam Frieberg, formerly rabbinic assistant at Shaarei Tefillah Congregation in Toronto, said he and his wife are looking forward to working with impressionable young people. 

“A lot of the students have spent years in yeshiva and maybe a year in Israel, but now they’re out in the big, bad world,” said Rabbi Frieberg. “I want to take what they learned in yeshiva and help them bring it to life.”

He said from initial meetings with Orthodox students there seemed to be “a desire to step up learning.”

The Friebergs succeed Rabbi Akiva and Nataly Weiss, who went to the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she is director of its Hillel and he is JLI rabbi.

Bernstein grew up in the desert community of Palmdale, Calif. In Brooklyn, he organized the independent minyan Shir HaMaalot, which attracted a monthly gathering of 150 young adults from various backgrounds. He also was a rabbinic intern at Columbia University/Barnard College in Manhattan. 

He succeeds Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, who became an assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Palo Alto, Calif.

Bernstein said he plans to reach out to Reform and unaffiliated students. One of his ideas, he said, is to have Hillel students of all denominations participate in the Nov. 16 Global Day of Jewish Learning, whose organizers are Orthodox. 

“I want students to ask questions and offer criticism so I will be able to deconstruct their Jewish identity and develop programs that will be meaningful for them,” he said. “I look forward to the things that can’t be predicted, the unknown, with incredible passion. I come from an improvisational theater background.”

One of the challenges Bernstein sees is the decentralization of the university, with its multiple campuses throughout New Brunswick and Piscataway.

“I want to reach out to students on Douglass or Livingston to see how to create Jewish life there,” said Bernstein.

Mahatzri, a resident of Ashkelon, holds a law degree from the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion. He said the large Jewish community on campus — Rutgers counts 6,000 Jewish undergrads and 1,000 Jewish graduate students — also drew him to the two-year position. 

 “This is the best time of life to influence students because they’re searching for answers, and I hope to provide the answers,” he said.

He previously met some Rutgers students in May on a Birthright trip, and they spent three hours exchanging ideas.

“They have so many ideas of what they want,” said Mahatzri. “It makes it so exciting to come here.”

Mahatzri, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces who succeeds Avia Prins, left Israel for New Jersey during the height of Operation Protective Edge. Leaving was hard, he said, but coming to Rutgers was important.

“One of the reasons is I can advocate for my people,” he said. “If I am not there fighting I should be here advocating from this side.”

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