Rutgers Hillel Helped Me Build a Jewish Life – And Eventually Become a Jewish Wife
By Bethany Mandel, Class of 2008
When I arrived at Rutgers in the fall of 2005, I was dating a (very nice) non-Jewish guy from high school and my last name was Murphy. Despite that, I had always considered myself Jewish. I grew up with my father’s last name, Horowitz, and was the only Jew in my rural town in Upstate New York. I moved to New York City and changed my name when I was 18 years old, and transferred to Rutgers my sophomore year. I had very strong feelings about my Jewish identity, but knew no other Jews and had next to no real Jewish experience to speak of outside of books.
The reason I chose to transfer to Rutgers was because of its strong Jewish Studies department. I had been a Jewish Studies major at my previous school, but most of my classmates were not Jewish, and I wanted to not only learn about Judaism, but be immersed in it as well. The size of the Jewish population at Rutgers and its strong academic Jewish foundation was what drew me.
My first Rutgers Hillel event was the Back to School BBQ. It was overwhelming, and it took another semester for me to return. I did so after I pledged to never date another non-Jewish guy after I broke up with my high school boyfriend my first semester at Rutgers. I needed to meet some of these Jewish guys, and Hillel was where I went to do it.
Soon, I became friendly with the staff at Hillel, with Andrew Getraer and Rabbi Esther Reed in particular. I attended more events at Hillel and the staff made sure I felt welcome, especially considering my lack of Jewish knowledge, experience and friends. They sent me on a trip with other Reform students to Washington, DC for skills-building for growing our small community. What I gained from the trip was several best friends, two of whom I would move in with later in my college career. Those newfound friends began inviting me to parties, and soon, my entire friend circle was other active members of Rutgers Hillel.
Rabbi Reed introduced me to one friend who I call my “brother from another mother” my senior year of college. Dave, like myself, had lost a parent in high school and another parent very early in his college career. She made this friendship shidduch which remains strong to this day; my kids call him “Unke Dave.”
Because I lost my parents so young, Hillel wasn’t just a place where I hung out with friends and grew Jewishly (though I did that, in spades). It was also a home away from home with adults on staff who I looked up to as parent-figures.
Being orphaned in college meant I spent every waking moment not in class working; I had two jobs and clocked over twenty hours a week at each. I was full-time between the two of them, while also attending classes full-time, in addition to serving on the executive board of several school groups. Despite that, I made time to be involved at Hillel. Because of how hard I worked, I would never describe my college years as particularly fun or carefree. Hillel was the only bright spot in an otherwise very difficult and exhausting three years of school. I will be forever grateful to Hillel, the staff and the friends I made there for all of their help, in big ways and small along my journey as a Jew. I experienced all of my Jewish firsts at Rutgers; I came in not knowing what Shabbat was and left able to explain why frum Jews need an eruv.
And, bonus: It’s because of Hillel I eventually met that Jewish guy. I was introduced to my husband Seth, also a Rutgers graduate, by friends I made at Rutgers Hillel. Despite the fact that our wedding was a family-only affair we made one exception: Hillel’s Executive Director Andrew Getraer. He signed our ketubah and his wife kept my grandmother in line. While it was a family-only affair, we didn’t make an exception for Andrew. He became like family.
Rutgers Hillel is proud to honor Bethany Mandel at the Annual Gala on Thursday, June 2nd. Rutgers Hillel cultivates the next generation of Jewish leaders. Bethany is a true testament to that.