Archive for : Will Berkovitz

Hurricane Sandy, Google and a Message From the Whirlwind

I’m looking at a Google map that showed up on my Facebook feed. It is filled with multi-colored virtual thumbtacks on my desktop that says Hurricane Sandy Recovery — Volunteer Opportunities. The colors represent the type of help needed. Red pin: volunteer opportunities at food banks and evacuation shelters. Yellow pin: donation sites for emergency supplies and food. Teal pin: volunteer opportunities to clean up damaged neighborhoods.

Between phone calls with colleagues, photos and new reports, and live Twitter and Facebook feeds, I felt I had entered the fourth dimension and was personally in the heart of Sandy’s path as it thundered up the coast and pounded the northeast.

But I wasn’t. I am based in Seattle and by next week I suspect my Twitter and Facebook feeds will return to their normal rhythms of witty comments, and photos of smiling people and cats (being a dog owner, something I just can’t understand). And that is the challenge all of us not living in a flooded neighborhood without power or fresh water face — those of us who are not face with children’s or simple questions of “why?” and “what’s next?” Those of us not forced to look at destroyed neighborhoods and needing to answer the same questions for ourselves. Very quickly, as if having passed an accident on the highway that makes us pause our conversation and shutter, we will, as we must, continue along down the road of our lives.

But we can’t just keep driving along. Commandedness — the demand of a response both as an individual and as a community — is one of the most powerful ideas the Jewish tradition has brought into the world. A felt obligation to pull off the road and to not keep driving. The acceptance that no matter who I am or where I am, I can’t be a bystander. A response is obligated by nature of the skills, talents and gifts I’ve been given; we as a community have been given; we as a country have been given.

And yet, I suspect those colored thumbtacks on Google will increase like a visual manifestation of urgent need. In fact, the truth is the world is populated with multi-colored thumbtacks, but unless the disaster is so merciless and the photos so compelling to activate our fascination with abomination we will never react to them. Most of us will never bother to look. And that is, as it always has been, our challenge. For us not in the recovery zone the question isn’t “why,” but what are we going to do about it? Not just today but always.

Here is a list of ways you can get involved now in recovery efforts in the northeast.
Follow Rabbi Will Berkovitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@CitizenRabbi

‘U Lead, We Lead’ event encourages cross-campus conversation

Small blue cubes topped the tables of the HUB ballroom Thursday night.

On each side of the cube was a question. As students, faculty, and community members flooded the room, table captains greeted them. Throughout the night, these captains facilitated conversations about leadership using these cubes and other tools.

The “U Lead, We Lead” event drew approximately 300 people. In addition to the table groups, guests heard from key members of the community on what it means to be a leader.

“Who are you? Who are you becoming? Who do you want to be, and why is that what you want to become?” Rabbi Will Berkovitz, vice president for Repair the World, a Jewish organization advocating for global service, asked the audience.

The event was part of the Husky Leadership Initiative, which is an ongoing program to encourage leadership in the UW community. Lincoln Johnson, UW director of student activities and associate vice president for campus life, gathered a group of 28 community members last spring to spearhead the project.

Johnson said the goal is to bring the campus together to form conversations about leadership.

“A lot of good development is going on in terms of leadership but a lot of it is decentralized,” Johnson said.

Senior Evelyn Jensen, who helped organize and lead the event, said most of the leadership groups on campus have been a part of “U Lead, We Lead” and its creation. She said the wide range of people involved in the event helped add to the diversity of the conversations.

“We’re bringing in communities from all across UW. We have ASUW, we have RHSA, we have the Greek community, we have the [Ethnic Cultural Center] — just a lot of leadership groups,” Jensen said. “We have a really diverse group of people coming in and speaking about what their thoughts on leadership are.”

UW President Michael Young was one of many speakers at the event, telling students that one of the most important qualities of a leader is the ability to react to any situation. He said his life didn’t go exactly as he planned, but he learned a lot from his experiences.

“I know you all have your careers all planned out, but I can promise you that very little will go the way you planned it,” Young said. “And that’s going to be a wonderful thing. And what you learn, fundamentally, is how to deal with what life throws at you.”

He defined a good leader as someone who is able to take initiative and compel other people to do what is best for the community­ — and for the world. And he said that while academics are definitely a key part in becoming a good leader, other skills learned at the university level are more important.

“I realize you’re studying chemistry, political science, English, and dance and all these other things,” Young said. “But what’s important is the basic understanding that you’re going to get about how you can use those interpersonal skills that you develop to be thinking about how you can get people to do something that really matters in the world and make a difference.”

Sophomore Christina Xiao attended “U Lead, We Lead” as a volunteer, but she said she was still able to learn a lot from the conversations and the speakers.

“I think this was a really good idea; it’s a really interesting concept,” Xiao said. “I really liked what [Berkovitz] said about using your skills and your passions to meet the needs of society. I thought that was a really good message.”

Johnson said this is the first of many leadership events that will appear on campus this year.

“We want it to be an ongoing conversation,” Johnson said.

Big Shoes to Fill

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.”