When Ely Allen was a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi asked him to help recruit students for Jewish events on campus.
“Why would I want to do that?” asked Allen. He had grown up in a traditional Jewish home. His parents, originally from Egypt, had met in Jersey City. After 12 years of Orthodox day schools, “I was sick of it. I didn’t want to be observant any more. I didn’t want to be Jewish any more.”
The Chabad rabbi and his colleagues persevered. “Through their kindness and teaching, I became re-observant,” he recalls.
Now, it is Allen who brings Judaism, kindness, and teaching to the FDU Teaneck campus – as well as those of William Paterson University, Bergen Community College (BCC), and Ramapo College of New Jersey – in his capacity as the director, and only staffer, of the Hillel of Northern New Jersey.
|Rabbi Ely Allen|
Allen is beginning his 11th year in that position. Since his undergraduate days, he has studied in Israel; taught for nearly two decades at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies; led services at the Sephardic minyan in Englewood; and studied at Yeshiva University, where he received rabbinic ordination.
“I think he’s awesome,” says Melissa Brown, who graduated from William Paterson University, where she served as as Hillel treasurer. A native of Parsippany, she majored in business and marketing, with a minor in studio art. She is starting work as a nursery school teacher at the Glen Rock Jewish Center.
“He’s very relatable. He doesn’t push, he just lets you go at your own pace,” she says of his approach to Judaism.
Four campuses keep Allen busy. He tries to visit each one each week, one day per campus.
All told, he estimates that the four schools have 2,000 Jewish students. “There are a thousand at BCC, but the majority are working full time. We’re in touch with about 400 to 500 students between e-mails and Facebook groups, and the students I’m in touch with,” he says.
That’s a fraction of that of Rutgers. Rutgers Hillel, however, has a full staff, including rabbis and fundraisers and program officers, and a building. Allen has only himself and an office at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The federation provides the bulk of his funding; many area rabbis chip in as well. And he is working to build a board of supporters.
A few years back, the national Hillel office stopped its annual $13,000 contribution to Allen’s program. That forced him to cut back on large, multi-campus events such as a Matisyahu concert at the YJCC.
“The biggest challenges we have are money and resources,” says Lauri Bader, co-chair of the federation’s Hillel committee. “Ely runs his programs on four campuses on a shoestring budget. He does the best he can with the money he has, but he’s very limited.”
Allen’s limits in time and staff do not extend to his personal commitment. “We try to create unique meaningful Jewish experiences for each student. We try to cater to the needs of each individual,” he says.
One of the highlights of the Hillel calendar, according to students, are the monthly shabbatons he hosts at his Bergenfield home, where he hosts dozens of students for Sabbath services and meals.
Hillel brings students into the community, drawing in volunteers monthly to work with the Yachad program for people with special needs. It brings volunteers to help with federation’s Super Sunday phonathon. And it holds Sukkah and Passover programs with the elderly.
Then there are the programs on campus.
Michael Chananie is entering his senior year at Ramapo College and is co-president of the school’s Hillel chapter. He is proud of expanding the Shabbat dinner program on campus. “Last year we had it about once month. This year, we’re going to have a lot more,” he said.
The dinners attract 15 to 20 students, Chananie said.
The Hillel programs have brought Rabbi Joel Mosbacher from nearby Cong. Beth Haverim Shir Shalom to campus. They have sponsored programs with the college’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. And they have had events such as a cupcake decorating contest, where Allen brought in cupcakes and the students were challenged to decorate them Jewishly.
To recruit students, “We do club fairs, have posters around campus, we reach out on Facebook,” said Chananie.
The Ramapo student is happy with the results of his Hillel involvement. “I met a lot of new people. I made a lot of friends. I met my girlfriend.
“I got my Birthright trip to Israel through the organization. It’s been a chance for leadership experience as well,” he said.
As for Allen, he loves his job.
“It’s a very fulfilling place for me. That I can really help someone out every day, inspire someone who needs help. I have a lot of gratitude to God and all the people that help out that I’m able to do something meaningful every day.”