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Connecticut welcomes two new Hillel directors

By Cindy Mindell


Rabbi Susan Schein values Conn College’s dedication to developing diverse and inclusive communities

Rabbi Susan Schein

Rabbi Susan Schein

NEW LONDON – This year has seen some significant milestones for Jewish life at Connecticut College. January marked the opening of Zachs Hillel House, the first-ever Hillel house on campus, made possible by a $1 million gift from philanthropist Henry Zachs and his family. Hillel has been active at the college for at least 25 years, using various venues for Shabbat dinners and holiday programming open to the communities of Connecticut College and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy across the street.

Led by a student board, the Connecticut College Hillel has been overseen by campus chaplain Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg of Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, and Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.

Now, Hillel welcomes its first full-time director, Rabbi Susan Schein, who comes to the position with extensive experience in campus work and an unusual personal history.

Schein grew up in Katonah, N.Y. Her mother, a native of Vienna, Austria, had fled the Nazis in 1939 and immigrated to America. Fascinated by her mother’s native language, Schein decided to study German in junior high school, despite the fact that it was still somewhat unusual for Jewish young people to do so.

In high school, when she started to fall behind in German, it occurred to her that her classmates’ German skills had improved, because they had lived in Germany for a summer. While many of them had relatives in Germany, Schein did not. She approached her parents to ask if she could travel to a German-speaking country for a summer, and they agreed, arranging a private exchange with a family outside Hamburg. “I had an amazing international experience,” she says, “learning about German culture from the minutiae of how funny their mailboxes looked to the complexities of culture and politics.”

Schein continued to study German language and literature at the University of Rochester, where she double-majored in political science with a focus on international relations. After sophomore year, she returned to Germany for a summer internship in Düsseldorf. The experience was a turning point for her.

“Although I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and became a bat mitzvah, my family and I were not particularly active in the Jewish community afterwards,” Schein says. “Until that second visit to Germany, I focused more on my connection with Germany and my mother’s identity as a refugee than on my own Jewish identity. This time around, I connected with the local Jewish community and began trying to make sense of my experience given my German AND Jewish identities.”

The following year, while preparing for a study-abroad program in southern Germany, Schein realized that she should visit Israel, and made a commitment to do so after senior year. Following graduation, she bicycled cross-country from Seattle to Boston and then set off for Israel. There, she participated in Livnot U’Lehibanot – “To Build and To Be Built” – a three-month work-study program in Safed.

“The idea was to physically build Israel with our hands while intellectually and spiritually building ourselves through Jewish study and living,” she says. “I was particularly moved by the experience of keeping Shabbat.”

After completing the program, Schein returned to the U.S. to begin a PhD program in German at Washington University in St. Louis, where she became very active in Hillel and focused most of her free time on participating in Jewish community and exploring Jewish ritual and observance. “Over time, I realized that I was far more interested in becoming a Jewish communal professional than a German professor,” she says.

Offered a job as program director at the St. Louis Hillel Foundation on campus, Schein completed her Master’s degree in German literature and began her Jewish communal career.  Over the next few years, she traveled to Israel several times and thought a great deal about what she wanted to do with her passion for Judaism. Eventually, she decided to become a rabbi.

“I chose the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia because of its focus on community and the broad understanding of what it means to be Jewish,” she says. “I agreed with Reconstructionism’s ideological founder, Mordecai Kaplan, that ‘Judaism is the evolving civilization of the Jewish people,’ that the diverse backgrounds, cultural expressions, and ritual practices of the Jewish people are an expression of Judaism consistently changing – being reconstructed – in order to be meaningful in each generation.”

Schein intended to go into campus work, but while at RRC, she explored the full scope of the rabbinate, including hospital chaplaincy and working with the elderly. Toward the end of rabbinical school, she realized that she did not have enough congregational experience, and took a job as the student rabbi at Congregation Kol Emet, a Reconstructionist congregation in Yardley, a suburb of Philadelphia. She was ordained in 2003 and stayed on at the synagogue as associate rabbi for eight more years.

Three years ago, Schein’s career trajectory circled back to campus work. She served as coordinator of spiritual development at Philadelphia University, where she was responsible for addressing the religious and spiritual needs of the entire university community.

“When I saw the Connecticut College job listing, I was very excited by the opportunities the Zachs Hillel House and the full-time Hillel director position offered the campus and local communities,” she says. “I also was drawn to the college’s focus on liberal arts and its mission of ‘educating students to put the liberal arts into action in a global society.’ I value the college’s dedication to developing diverse and inclusive communities and I am inspired by its commitment to service learning and sustainability.”

In her role as Hillel director, Schein will work with the Hillel student group to support Jewish life on campus. The traditional weekly Shabbat dinners and holiday programming will continue and, over time, Schein will work with students, faculty, and staff to expand the Jewish educational, social, and cultural opportunities on campus.

The Zachs Hillel House operates under the auspices of the dean of the College Division and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and is supported by a community advisory board. In keeping with the college’s goal of modeling respect for all communities, it is open to all members of the campus community and welcomes participation of the local Jewish community.

Schein will work with longtime campus Jewish chaplain Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg.

“The focus of my first year will be on building relationships with as many students as possible, to find out where they’re coming from, what they’re interested in, where their passions lie, and what they hope to get from Jewish life at Connecticut College,” Schein says.

The Zachs Hillel House directorship is endowed through two gifts totaling $600,000, including a $350,000 grant from the David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation to support the cost of the director’s compensation over five years, and a $250,000 lead gift from Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell toward establishing an endowment for the Hillel director position.


Jason Oruch plans to help students grow their Jewish identity at U of Hartford Hillel

Jason Oruch

Jason Oruch

WEST HARTFORD – Jason Oruch is a good example of how Jewish campus life can inspire a lifelong commitment to Jewish involvement.

Oruch is a 2009 graduate of the University of Kansas, where he was involved in the student senate, Greek life, and KU Hillel. He was inspired to pursue a career in the Jewish community by KU Hillel executive director Jay Lewis, and while serving as a student representative on KU Hillel’s board of directors. The idea was cemented on a Taglit-Birthright Israel experience in winter 2009.

“Since returning from that trip, I have been determined to create opportunities for others to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life,” he says.

After graduating, Oruch worked as online marketing director for his father’s restaurant, Sea Breeze Fish Market & Grill in Plano, Tex., the family’s hometown. In 2011, he joined University of Oklahoma Hillel as director of student life. While there, he focused on developing student leadership initiatives and building relationships with OU Student Life. As a fellow of Hillel’s Harrison Leadership and Professional International Development (LAPID) Initiative, he created The Passion Project, a Jewish leadership-development and social justice program.

After three years at OU Hillel, Oruch was looking for a new professional opportunity, and was excited to learn of the position at University of Hartford Hillel.

“I am energized by the opportunity to grow Jewish life at University of Hartford,” he says. “My favorite part of this work is helping students own their Jewish identity and providing a space for students to learn about themselves and fellow students from different backgrounds. I encourage students to step out of their comfort zone and take advantage of everything their university community has to offer. I also love the opportunity to mentor the Jewish future and inspire them as KU Hillel staff did for me when I was a student.”

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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