This article originally appeared in JTNews on March 12, 2010.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz would have been satisfied serving his career as executive director of Hillel at the University of Washington. But then came an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Beginning in July, Berkovitz will become vice-president of partnerships and rabbi in residence at a year-old organization called Repair the World.
“I love my job here [at Hillel], and I’ve always said it was my dream job,” Berkovitz told JTNews. “When I was approached by these folks and they told me what the position was, I said, ‘Look, it sounds great, [but] I really love Seattle as well and I have no interest in leaving this community, because it’s my community.’”
When the New York-based organization offered a position that would allow Berkovitz to stay in Seattle, however, he began to give the opportunity some serious thought.
His mission, Repair the World told him, would be to strive to take the model he has created at the UW to other campuses and communities around the country, Berkovitz said.
In particular, it is his work in social justice such as volunteer spring break trips that work with indigenous peoples in places like Central and South America that brought Berkovitz to the attention of the founders of Repair the World.
“Will is really absolutely exemplary as a model of someone who lives a life of commitment to service and social change, and does so Jewishly,” said Jon Rosenberg, Repair the World’s CEO. “The work he’s done, in terms of leading immersive service trips, bringing social justice and service to be a critical part of Jconnect and of the work of Hillel at the University of Washington — he’s just someone who, as a speaker, as a writer, as a thinker about these issues, is a rare mix of being passionate, articulate and strategic.”
Repair the World’s mission “is to make service a defining element of American Jewish life, learning and leadership,” Rosenberg said. Fulfilling that mission is four-fold, including help to build up existing programs, creating a more robust Jewish volunteer infrastructure, bringing service as a central tenet to local organizations like Jconnect, and to tie all those pieces together by supporting the people who make these kinds of programs happen.
Berkovitz will help “to forge partnerships across the spectrum of Jewish institutions, primarily things that help strategically to make service a normative part of the Jewish experience,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg cited the Jserve Jewish International Youth Day of Service, which will have an event in Seattle next month, as one organization with which Repair the World is working.
It also includes working on college campuses, Rosenberg said, since students are often at the front lines of providing direct help for people in need worldwide through what he called “immersive service experiences.”
“There’s a need and an opportunity when they come back to campus for all sorts of follow-up programming, where they can continue to engage in service activities, to deepen their commitment to service and social change, to deepen the Jewish context for them doing that work,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to be focused on in the coming year, and Will is going to lead those efforts for us.”
Having the ability to be based in Seattle is something important to Berkovitz, because the innovation that happens in local sectors such as tech and global health, for example, finds its way into public service and volunteerism. Such has not always been the case in the Jewish communal world.
“So much of what happens is on the East Coast and works its way west,” he said.
Berkovitz cited several local organizations that have popped up in recent years as examples of the innovation that goes on in Seattle’s Jewish community, including the Kavana Cooperative, Ravenna Kibbutz, and Hillel’s own young adults’ Jconnect program.
“By dedicating resources in an area that really speaks to the Jewish community,” including those on the margins, he said, “those disconnected Jews may find something in Judaism that feels compelling.”
The goal is not to just be involved in Jewish life, he added, but to make that involvement meaningful.
Leaving Hillel, however, means the student organization has big shoes to fill. Berkovitz took over the job of executive director nearly four years ago after serving as assistant executive director under former director Rabbi Dan Bridge, a year of which was spent as interim executive director while Bridge was on sabbatical.
Hillel board chair Suzan LeVine called Berkovitz’s departure a mixed bag.
“We’re super sad to see him go, but excited about having the deep connection with this national, if not global organization, and having them recognize the amazing work that’s been done and that will continue to be done at Hillel in terms of social justice work,” she said.
Already, an administrative team has been formed to come up with logistics for a search committee, LeVine said, and she hopes they will find a replacement for Berkovitz by July 1.
That said, she added, “we will only hire the right person for this position, so this administrative team will be providing a recommendation for an interim solution if we don’t have an executive director in place by the time Will leaves.”
The search committee will engage in what LeVine called an “extremely transparent” process during the search.
“People feel like Hillel is their family,” she said. “We want to make sure that we provide regular updates so that everyone who feels a kinship with Hillel knows what’s going on.”
Though his tenure at Hillel UW was relatively short — the first of his last two predecessors came to the organization in 1959 — LeVine said Berkovitz’s legacy at Hillel will be his commitment to building the social justice programs and creation of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender effort, as well as his continuing to build the Jconnect program.
“Will has been outstanding in terms of community and university outreach, and as his predecessors were, he’s also been an incredible presence in the community overall,” she said.
There is a personal aspect to Berkovitz’s job change, and it’s a reason staying in Seattle was important to him as well. As the father of two young boys, part of his mission in life is to inculcate the value of service into them as well, whether within the Jewish community or in the broader community.
“When my sons end up in college, I want service to be such a natural part of what happens,” he said. “Volunteering and living a life of service is something that this community values.”