After two decades, Andrew Getraer, 56, is no longer the executive director of Rutgers Hillel.
“There are a lot of changes in my family I need to focus on,” he said, explaining why he recently tendered his resignation, which became effective on July 1. These changes include his mother’s unexpected death last year, as well as the youngest of his five children graduating high school and going to Israel for the year.
Focusing on his family is “hard to do while running Rutgers Hillel, because that has always been a 24/7/365 passion,” Mr. Getraer said. “If I can’t give 110 percent, then I need to step down.
“I’m going to take a couple months, get my mother’s estate in order, take some deep breaths, and then figure out what my next step is going to be.”
Mr. Getraer came to Hillel on July 1, 2001, after running an outreach program for young post-college Jews sponsored by Boston’s Jewish federation. (Before that he had worked in marketing for a renewable energy company “where I learned to explain complicated things to lay people” and before that he had worked for NBC as a page, wearing the uniform later made famous by the “30 Rock” character Kenneth Parcell.) That introduced him to Hillel International leaders in Washington D.C., who asked him if he was interested in becoming a Hillel director.
Mr. Getraer was surprised; he wasn’t, after all, a rabbi, as the head of Dartmouth’s Hillel had been when he was an undergraduate there. Hillel officials explained that the organization was changing its model. Richard Joel, who led Hillel from 1989 to 2003 (when he assumed the presidency of Yeshiva University) looked for people with management skills and a Jewish background to lead the local institutions. Then those leaders would hire rabbis.
Today, Rutgers Hillel employs a dozen people. They include a Conservative rabbi (Rabbi Esther Reed, Hillel’s senior associate director, who will fill in for Mr. Getraer until a successor is found), an Orthodox rabbi (Rabbi Avi Schwartz, who with his wife Sara Schwartz is part of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program), and a Reform rabbi (Rabbi Jason Cook, who recently was hired as the Hillel’s senior Jewish educator.)
When Mr. Getraer started at Rutgers Hillel, he led a staff of four.
“Rutgers Hillel was a much smaller, much less impactful organization,” he said. “We had a budget of $400,000. We were renting a really decrepit old house. We were reaching five hundred, six hundred students a year. Now we have a 40,000 square foot building and are reaching 3,000 students a year.”
That’s half of the estimated 6,000 Jewish undergraduates at Rutgers’ main campus in New Brunswick. That makes Rutgers one of the largest campus Jewish communities in the country. “It’s been an incredible period of growth and expansion and deepening of Jewish community and identity at Rutgers,” Mr. Getraer said.
What was the biggest change during his time in New Brunswick?
“The diversity of the Jewish student body,” Mr. Getraer said. “We have Jews from across the religious spectrum, from every background ethnically as well as religiously. Russian Jews, Mizrachi and Sefardi Jews, Israeli Jews, Jews of color — those numbers have grown. It makes it an amazing platform for building a Jewish community that really reflects the Jewish people.”
The other big change, of course, is in the technology students and Hillel use to create community.
In 2001, “there were no smartphones, no texting, and no Facebook,” Mr. Getraer said. “It’s been a revolution. To get the word out we used to write on a whiteboard in front of our building what our events were that day. We had students who would write out and print out a calendar for the month and stuff it into 2,000 student mailboxes. We don’t do that anymore.
“Now we have so many methods of communication that it makes it somewhat harder to communicate. We need Facebook and texting and Instagram and WhatsApp groups and whatever the most recent trend in student communication is. It varies from year to year.”
Over the years, “we have tried to create programs so as many students as possible will find something to connect with,” he continued. “We’ve created groups for LGBT Jews, Yiddish-speaking Jews, Russian Jews, Israelis. We’ve supported the Jewish arts in the form of a Jewish theater company, a Jewish a cappella group, a gallery for Jewish artists. All of those things are successful only really inasmuch as students and student leaders embrace them.
“The more that students are empowered, the more leadership you give students, the greater success anything is going to have. Hillel exists to support student ideas and help them learn to be leaders and deal with challenges. We can bring them ideas, but ultimately, it’s up to the students what happens in their community. That combination of experienced guidance but grassroots empowerment, that’s what makes Hillel.”
What’s the argument for Hillel? Why should a student get involved?
“Rutgers is a gigantic university. It’s 36,000 undergraduates on five separate campuses that encompass three different cities” — New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden. “It can be overwhelming. There are incredible options — but you can get very lost. Being part of Hillel makes it a warmer campus, a more personal campus, where you know you’re welcome.
“It provides an opportunity to grow in ways the rest of the university doesn’t. You can grow intellectually, you can grow Jewishly. You can explore your identity, learn what it is to be part of a Jewish community, to meet Jews of other backgrounds. You can’t do that except in Hillel. We find that the more students get connected to each other through Hillel, the better all their experiences are. They have a foundation, they have support. Plus, they get free food: free Shabbat dinners and free food at all programs.”
Mr. Getraer said that news coverage of anti-Semitism at Rutgers doesn’t reflect the fact that “Jews are happily going to minyan and walking around in their kipot and celebrating Shabbat and going to Israel.
“It doesn’t make the news because it’s normal. When bad things happen it’s newsworthy. It’s like if all you knew about Israel was from CNN, which is basically that there are wars all the time, you don’t realize there’s a whole country thriving with prosperity. It’s the same at Rutgers.
“There’s anti-Semitism at Rutgers like there is everywhere. We’re more aware that it is growing and pervasive throughout society, but Jewish life in America is at the same time very vibrant and rich.
“When things happened last month with the chancellor it obviously was very upsetting, and we made a strong statement and met with the university president and were able to discuss frankly the changes that need to happen here in the way that anti-Semitism is addressed.
“We also know that that most students on a daily basis don’t experience anti-Semitism. We have a student from Teaneck who runs our daily minyan this year; he wrote a letter to a newspaper that he walks around with yarmulke and tzitzit and never experiences anti-Semitism.”
Mr. Getraer said that a key event in his Rutgers Hillel career was the October 2003 “Israel Inspires” rally the Hillel organized.
“It was the largest pro-Israel rally in the state of New Jersey,” he said. “Some seven thousand people came to campus. We mobilized every federation, synagogue, day school, Hadassah, and Jewish organization in the state and in the region to come to the campus to celebrate Israel in response to a lot of anti-Israel provocations that were occurring at the time.
“It showed our students we could do anything. We could organize on the grandest scale, and if we focus on the positive and celebrate what we love about Israel and being Jewish, that is more powerful than any reaction we might have to anything else. It changed our students’ perceptions of themselves, it changed Hillel’s perception of what we could accomplish, and it changed how people saw Rutgers Hillel.
“It led to growth in every area, and eventually to the opening of this Hillel house.”
But there’s another, smaller moment that he also thinks about a lot, Mr. Getraer added. “I had a student who came from mixed parentage. Her father was Jewish; her mother was not. She was exploring what that meant for her.
“I was walking down College Avenue with her, and she asked what Shabbat was and what it meant for my family. I talked about what it meant to raise your kids with Shabbat as your family’s time.
“She eventually had an Orthodox conversion, married a Jewish guy, and is raising a shomer Shabbat family.
“Not that that’s the goal for everybody, but it made me realize that small conversations we have with students can sometimes lead to deep and profound changes in their lives. That’s the thing I’m probably most proud and grateful for — that opportunity to help and impact students in their lives.”