by Riley Greenberg ’14
I heard about Hillel the same way that every incoming Jewish freshman does- my grandmother, of course! Not wanting to disappoint my bubbe, right after moving into my dorm I marched myself across George Bush Drive and peered into the dark windows of the oddest looking building I’d ever seen. To use one word, it was ~brown~. To use another word, it was ~triangular~. There were weird windows and the steep sloping roof of the main area basically touched the ground. Despite all of this character, the building was empty. No cars were in the gravel parking lot, no bikes were on the racks, and no humans were wandering the halls (in retrospect, there might’ve been vermin of the non-human variety roaming). Curious, but unfazed, I chocked this up to it being two weeks before school actually started… I would have to make my return with the masses. You mark my words, silly looking Hillel building. I will be back.
The next morning I departed for Fish Camp, Texas A&M’s four-day Kool-Aid-drinking session for freshmen. On the last night it gets really deep and they ask you to divulge all kinds of things about yourself that are supposed to make you feel connected to your fellow campers. “Stand up if you’re Jewish!” I hesitantly raised myself from the folding chair and held my breath for someone, ANYONE else to stand up. Only one; one other person stood with me while everyone looked at us like “oh ok there ARE Jewish kids here”… the other person standing was one of my counselors, Ben Schwarz, and later he pulled me aside and gave me the full scoop about Jewish Life at A&M. I felt like I was hearing about the intricate initiation process for some secret society. I was intimidated, but excited.
During Gig ‘em week, my phone number had been given to four ladies involved in Jewish engagement (terrifyingly enough all of their names started with M so I was very confused for a very long time), and I began receiving calls and texts trying to recruit me. The social anxiety battle that every introvert faces in these situations began to rage on inside of me as I was tempted to retreat away from this wave of enlistment. But one advance made it through my defense; a simple “do you need a ride to services?” text became the spark needed in my life. That spark lit three fires: a professional career that I had never considered, a religious journey that no one would’ve seen coming, and a lifelong friendship that remains fruitful to this day.
The M that had texted me was Marny Itzkowitz. The Dallasite sophomore was serving on Hillel’s student board at the time (when I asked recently what her position was, she said “freshman engagement officer” which honestly makes sense and makes me feel a little less special). Her non-abrasive, yet take-it-or-leave-it attitude about being involved was what helped me let my guard down. I continued to agree to her giving me rides to things at Hillel and was quickly brought onto the student board as the freshman representative. Right away it was apparent to me that there were too many cooks in this kitchen, but I was non-the-less happy to be one of them. My involvement with Hillel, and at the time, by association, the Jewish sorority Zeta Beta Sigma, became the cornerstone of my social life in this new collegiate phase. Yes, I had come to A&M with a whole group of people from high school (over 20% of my graduating class, actually), but I quickly realized that many of them had been friends of proximity rather than commonality. This was the first time that I had peers who shared my Jewish heritage. There was no judgement about knowledge of Judaism or level of observance, but we all had at least one nagging bubbe, a few not-so-pleasant Passover memories, and believed that our family’s kugel recipe was the end-all be-all. This social connection was a component of my life I didn’t know I had been missing..
Marny quickly became like an older sister to me. She helped me navigate this new social world, the ups and downs of newer, harder classes, and the woes of trying to date in college. Her logic and empathy blend into the perfect antithesis of my spontaneous emotions. Her figurative sibling care became institutionalized when I was initiated as her little in Zeta Beta Sigma. Marny admitted to me that she knew she wanted me to be her little when she saw me wearing black Converse with my bid-day dress (two things to note- 1) this was way before the white Converse craze hit sorority life ~hipster alert~ and 2) I was so oblivious to the norms of sorority life that I had no idea that what I was wearing would’ve been considered counter-culture). Marny’s friendship and care for me has been extended into life beyond college and student organizations; we currently live, walking door-to-door, about four minutes from each other, and in a little over a month, I will be standing by her side as her maid-of-honor (she will be the one wearing Converse with her dress this time, though)!
Marny is just one of the many life-long friends I made through my involvement at Hillel. In addition to growing my social network, though, spirituality took on a whole new meaning in my life. As I mentioned, my involvement in organized Jewish life before college consisted of me occasionally working out at the JCC and avoiding interaction with any acquaintances. While I still prefer making Shabbat in the comfort of my own home and celebrating the holidays creatively with my friends (this is some heavy foreshadowing, you guys, get ready), the smaller services Hillel offered were a change from the services I was used to attending in huge sanctuaries with unfamiliar faces. We sang songs! People I knew were leading prayers! There was FREE community dinner afterwards! My engrossment in all aspects of Jewish life was like falling asleep- slowly and then all at once (name that book). My insatiable need for “the rabbinic opinion” on this and “what does the Torah say” about that found me loving my religion more than I ever thought I would.
Both my reinvigorated love for Judaism and the priceless friendships I made in Hillel kept me as involved as possible in leadership positions throughout my undergraduate career at Texas A&M. By my senior year, I found myself in the role of “Prime Minister” of the student board. My first executive order was to change the title to “President” for seemingly obvious reasons. Now I’d like to back-track for a sec- the Hillel I found myself in at this point was not the ~brown~ ~ triangle~ of Old Army years. That unique structure met its demise in late 2010 and had been replaced by a huge, beautiful ~tan~ ~square~. The replacement did not happen overnight, though! Oh no, sweet reader, we spent many moons without a formal home- we dub these the dessert years. We took up shop in what we referred to as G-d’s Office Space. While our location was anything but consistent, there was also pressure to bring in a new Rabbi. Rabbi Tarlow had been telling us he wanted to retire for about five years at this point and no one could blame him- he had devoted thirty-five years to our Hillel and he was ready for his next step. These two major transitions poised our organization for the opportunity to sink or soar… I like to think we soared high. We plucked Rabbi Matt Rosenberg straight outta the processional line at his graduation from the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies and together, Matt (aka Rabbs, aka RabBro, aka RMR), and the student board began a new phase of Texas A&M Hillel in our shiny tan square.
My presidential year was not without its drawbacks, but all in all, I am very proud of the programs we brought to light and I believe we set the stage for a lot of growth in the right direction. What a shift from the empty Hillel I tentatively approached so many years ago! TAMU Hillel is now teaming with life (even if it’s just students mooching leftovers) year-round. Through new opportunities for student leaders, I was able to attend two national AIPAC events, brush elbows with the movers and shakers of A&M, and network like a fiend. The connections and passions that were generated at this juncture, while totally unforeseen, helped shape the path I am currently on! I recently accepted an amazing position where I am able to continue shaping the future of young Jewry. As the director of Makom, I am carrying on a legacy of excited, exploratory Judaism put in place a few years ago. I like to describe Makom as Hillel for after college- it gives you a unique opportunity to discover what your Jewish journey will look like at this stage of your life and beyond. Through fun social activities, thoughtful and creative services (sometimes in people’s homes and backyards- remember my foreshadowing from earlier), and opportunities to be involved in social justice efforts effecting the community, Makom poises the Jewish leaders of tomorrow with many opportunities to understand the importance of their Jewish journey today.
This job would not have been anything I thought possible six years ago as a senior in high school. I never anticipated even looking for jobs in the Jewish realm until I became so involved with Hillel and saw how Jewish involvement and engagement can truly change the course of someone’s life. I hope that through my work now, I can help other’s find what their Jewish journey will mean- whether they find a new career goal, rediscover what their spirituality means to them, or just make some amazing friends, I hope that I can help people find just a fraction of what my involvement in Hillel helped me find. As I watch TAMU Hillel’s life in pictures from afar on social media and Snapchats from Rabbi Matt, I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy for everyone just starting their time at A&M. The “oldest and friendliest Hillel in the nation” will always hold a very special place in my heart. No matter where life takes me, I will always be overly grateful for the time I had there!
Riley Greenberg ’14, was President (a.k.a. Prime Minister) of Hillel during the 2013-2014 academic year. She is the former director of Makom and calls San Antonio home. She is completing her master’s degree in Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Community in 2016.