By Cindy Mindell
STORRS – In July 2009, then-29-year-old South African native Gary Wolff took over as executive director of Hillel at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Wolff came to Connecticut after serving for five years in various professional capacities with Hillel in southern Florida.
Now, after nearly six years on the job, Wolff is heading south again, tapped by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas as its new chief of staff and operations.
Named a Connecticut Jewish Ledger “Mover and Shaker” just one year after he joined the UConn Hillel staff, Wolff will be remembered for transforming the Jewish campus organization, according to UConn Hillel Board President Lauri J. Miller.
“When Gary first came, we had maybe 20 students who would come for Shabbat dinner, if we were lucky, and now we’re up to 120 to 170 every Friday night,” she says. “There were about 50 active kids; now there are over 850. Our annual budget went from $190,000 to almost $500,000. Gary made Hillel the place to be and you can’t walk in without finding students all over the place – in every nook and cranny studying, and at night, when Jewish fraternities and sororities and other organizations use the house for programming. The environment he built is really like home – fun, cool, and inviting. The slogan we came up with, ‘Individually different, collectively strong,’ is what Gary has made Hillel in terms of a wonderful place for young Jewish and non-Jewish kids to hang out.”
Miller says that Wolff helped to define and cement the three strong pillars that sustain UConn Hillel: “We develop leadership, Jewish learning and engagement, and Israel education and advocacy, so that the students get a really great foundation in becoming participants in a Jewish community when they leave,” she says.
Wolff also has an unusually successful track record when it comes to soliciting philanthropic donations, preferring the term “friend-raiser” over “fund-raiser” to describe that aspect of his work. His support comes not only from the Jewish community of Greater Hartford, but from Jewish organizations throughout the state.
“In his brief tenure at UConn, Gary has not only put UConn Hillel on the map, but has also created a new sanctuary of opportunity for the Jewish students at the university,” says Steve Friedlander, CEO of the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, a benefactor organization of UConn Hillel.
That emphasis on building relationships marks Wolff’s engagement with UConn administrators as well.
“Gary and Hillel have become the go-to for the university on anything having to do with Judaism and Israel,” Miller says. He has also opened up dialogue between student leaders from Hillel and other campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine.
Wolff will finish out the month as executive director and leave for Dallas in early June. “I love UConn and Hillel and what we do but I’m young and I still have a lot to learn,” Wolff says. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”
He leaves the campus organization with the hoped-for legacy he described to the Ledger in October 2010, when the newly-constructed Trachten-Zachs Hillel House first opened its doors.
“I want students to feel that they have a Jewish home away from home,” he said. “UConn Hillel serves our students’ religious needs, but it’s more a social and cultural institution. This is a place where students can sit and explore their own identity in a place they can call home. It covers the whole gamut of what a religious and cultural institution should be. I tell Jewish parents that there is absolutely no reason they should not send their children to UConn. It’s a great university with a great Hillel, a great kosher kitchen, and a great student body.”
The UConn Hillel Board of Directors has now turned its efforts to the search process, guided by Hillel International, with a committee chaired by board member Henry Mondschein and comprising UConn administrators, faculty members, and students.
“It’s sad to lose Gary in our Jewish community,” says Miller. “But hopefully, we will get somebody who’s talented in other ways and we will be strong and continue to build on the foundation Gary established.”