Reflections of a Rutgers Hillel Student President, 10 Years Later
By Rebecca Leibowitz, Class of 2004
It’s early September in the year 2000 and I’m a newly knighted freshwoman at Rutgers College. With the support and patience of my parents, I move into Clothier Hall on College Ave, a building that holds 350 students, at a university consisting of five campuses and serving roughly 40,000 undergraduates. There are people all around me, coming from every US State and from 105 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe. It’s my first time living away from home, and after coming from a high school of less than 200 in my graduating class, I feel immediately lost.
To ease the adjustment, I attend New Student Orientation with my roommate, but it doesn’t help. Serendipitously, it’s Friday night and we remember that Rutgers Hillel is hosting a Shabbat dinner at Brower Commons. We walk away from the large crowd and, at that moment, make a decision that, while we didn’t know it at the time, would change our lives forever.
We have all had moments in our lives where we feel overwhelmed or disconnected. In 2000, my roommate Rebecca Markowitz and I were two Jewish girls from New Jersey, attempting to find our place in a sea of thousands, looking to belong. For both of us, Rutgers Hillel instantaneously became that space for the next four years and beyond.
If Rutgers Hillel had just given me a social community that I could turn to when I felt lost, it would have been enough (dayenu!). Yet, there was so much more to come! At that first Shabbat dinner, I was invited to attend an upcoming event. That event turned into another event, and then another, which then led me to become a part of an event planning committee. This was truly the first time in my life that I felt empowered to flex programmatic and leadership skills in a way where I felt heard, and could see legitimate results of my labor and time. As a Jewish day school and youth group alumna, I had up to this point several experiences that played a significant role in my commitment to Jewish communal life, but it wasn’t until I got involved at Rutgers Hillel that I realized that I was actually developing into a Jewish communal leader.
During my junior year, fellow student Stephanie Schwartz convinced me to run for student president. She may not remember this, but the rationale she gave was that if I didn’t run, the election would be uncontested, and that candidates should be challenged. Ironically, the person that I ran against was none other than the person who would become her husband, Noam Kutler. Life can be funny that way.
I credit Rutgers Hillel for opening up my eyes to the world of innovative programming, event planning, public speaking and so much more. These are all muscles I flexed for the first time in my leadership roles at Rutgers Hillel, aka my professional development laboratory.
When I reflect back to my experiences at Rutgers Hillel, I am shocked at how insulated and safe I felt in the community while also strongly feeling the effects of specific world events. I recall being a young sophomore on September 11, 2001. When classes were cancelled in the wake of the tragic events, my immediate instinct was to go to Rutgers Hillel, where I spent the next several days with my college family watching the footage of the planes hitting the towers on the tiny television in 93 College Ave.
My college years were also years of great challenge for the Jewish community, as the events of the 2000-2005 second intifada created a cycle of violence we had not seen before in our young lifetimes. As a college community, we were confused, helpless, and trying to navigate the hostile opinions about Israel around us. My involvement at Rutgers Hillel gave me the forum to learn more about Israel’s politics, and of course, empowered me to react, along with my community. While we understood that we did not have control over events in the Middle East, we did have control over our own education of the situation and advocacy on the college campus.
And from that desire to make a difference, Israel Inspires was born. Led by Andrew Getraer and Rabbi Esther Reed, my fellow students and I felt a call to action that resulted in more than just a rally, block party, and weekend conference (not to mention the largest sukkah ever to be built on the roof of a Hyatt hotel), but a community of activists who are all still making a difference in the world today.
There have been countless times over the past 10 years, from job interviews to graduate school applications, where I have cited my involvement with Rutgers Hillel and Israel Inspires as a formative leadership experience. Every leadership or professional role I have held since then has been influenced by the management and problem solving skills as well as confidence-building tools that I learned there.
I’m being honored as part of the Israel Inspires Team at the Annual Gala to be held on Tuesday June 17. Even though touch points with my fellow students are not as frequent as I would like, I still feel a camaraderie with this group and it’ll be good to catch up with some of them next month. I would love for you to come out to support us and to support the wonderful work of Rutgers Hillel.
Rutgers Hillel is proud to honor Rebecca and the Israel Inspires Team ’04 at the Annual Gala on Tuesday, June 17th. Rutgers Hillel cultivates the next generation of Jewish leaders. The Israel Inspires Team ’04 is a true testament to that.