Rutgers Hillel brought in a record-breaking crowd of 350 at its annual gala ahead of the Sept. 22 grand opening of its new home — the $20 million Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House on the university’s main campus in New Brunswick.
The June 2 event took place at the Student Center, the first time since 2008 it was held on campus. (Attendance was capped at 350 because of the building’s fire regulations.) Planned tours of the new building, nearing completion nearby on College Avenue, were scratched after the necessary permits could not be secured.
Instead, the crowd was shown a video of Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer walking through the structure and showing off its features.
Afterward Getraer told the gathering, “It really, truly will be the finest Jewish campus building in America.”
The gala honored the legacy of the Halperns, whose five children made a $3 million gift in memory of their parents, survivors of the Holocaust from Poland.
The affair also honored Terri and Michael Rosenberg of Highland Park with the Rabbi Julius Funk Alumni Award, Bethany Mandel of Highland Park with the Young Alumni Award, and Jill and Eric Lavitsky of Bridgewater with the Center for Israel Leadership Award.
It was a night that also celebrated Hillel’s accomplishments over the last school year, including its being one of only two campus organizations to receive the university’s prestigious Chancellor’s Revolutionary Award, given for creativity and innovation in programming and outreach.
Hillel board president Roy Tanzman said he knew the late Eva and Arie Halpern both personally and professionally and has continued the relationship with successive generations.
“Our families have been involved with each other for decades,” he said. “I can’t name a Jewish organization on which they did not leave a mark.”
Tanzman noted that “after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Halperns picked up the pieces and lived the American dream, but never forgot others.”
Mandel, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2008, has worked in fund-raising, social media, and as a writer whose work has appeared in national publications. She was named one of The New York Jewish Week’s “36 under 36” in 2013 and this year was named one of the Forward 50 by the Forward newspaper.
“It’s no hyperbole to say her Jewish journey truly began at Rutgers Hillel,” said Getraer.
The child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Mandel was raised “marginally Reform.” However, after taking classes in Rutgers’ Jewish Studies department, participating in activities at Hillel, and going on a Birthright Israel trip through the organization, Mandel underwent an Orthodox conversion in 2011.
“It was at Hillel that I found my place in the Jewish world,” said Mandel, who has two children with her husband, Seth.
Honorees Michael and Terri Rosenberg, their daughter Gilah told the gathering, were always involved in the Rutgers and Hillel alumni associations. She herself is a 2009 Rutgers graduate now working as an academic adviser in the university’s athletic department.
Michael, who received a master’s degree in environmental science at Rutgers, said, “Hillel was the first place I went to at Rutgers, and they took me right in.”
At Hillel he performed with the Israeli dance group and chaired the Soviet Jewry Committee, forming a lasting friendship with the organization’s longtime director and his wife, Rabbi Julius and Pearl Funk, who were, said Gilah, “a very important part” of her parents’ lives.
Rabbi Funk served as director from Rutgers Hillel’s founding in 1943 until 1982; he died in 2006.
Although Terri did not attend Rutgers, she spoke of the many gatherings the couple had with the Funks over the years.
Michael is an environmental engineer working at Overlook Medical Center in Summit and for 31 years has chaired the Highland Park Environmental Commission. Terri is a speech/language pathologist in New Brunswick and the volunteer professional adviser to undergraduate students at the Rutgers Speech and Hearing Club.
Both are active in the Rutgers Hillel Alumni Association; over the years they have raised considerable funds for student programming and activities and served on its Safam concert planning committee. Michael also previously served on the Hillel board. They have three children.
In paying tribute to the Lavitskys, Rabbi Mendy Herson of Chabad of Greater Somerset County called them “inspiring leaders” who have a “rock solid” connection to Israel that has been passed down to their two sons.
Jill, vice president of consumer and logistics services for Johnson & Johnson in the United States and Canada, earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers. She serves on the board of the Jewish Family Service of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties and is a former board member of the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum JCC in Bridgewater.
Eric, a computer consulting and software developer, studied computer science at Rutgers; he said he has fond memories of walking to Hillel every day for dinner and for services on Shabbat. He is a board member of Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties and the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations and a former board member of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater. He is also active in AIPAC and other Israel advocacy groups.