It’s not smart to make assumptions about Talia Mizikovsky, the new local Hillel director. (More formally, she is the director of Jewish student life for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; she is replacing Rabbi Ely Allen, who made aliyah with this family this summer, after 14 years as Hillel director.)
Start with something as obvious as her name. You’d assume she’s Ashkenazi, right? That’s a very Russian name. And in fact her father, Anatoly Mizikovsky, was born in Russia. But Mr. Mizikovsky now lives in Australia — “on the sunshine coast; he’s been there a long time,” his daughter said — and her mother, Esther Chalom, was born in Alexandria. (Mr. Mizikovsky and Ms. Chalom met as students at NYU, and their children were born in the United States.)
So Ms. Mizikovsky is half Sephardi.
Ms. Mizikovsky spent part of her childhood in Edgewater and then moved to Englewood; she went to Moriah and then to Frisch, so you would assume that she’s Orthodox. You’d be partially right. But “we have a dual background, Orthodox and Conservative,” and she is entirely at home in both while fully identifying as neither. “It’s hard to put me in a box,” she said. Instead, she sees herself as pluralist, deeply Jewish and open to all expressions of Judaism.
Perhaps most saliently, Ms. Mizikovsky is 25 years old and strikingly attractive; to look at her — and perhaps this is unfair — is to miss the steel.
Ms. Mizikovsky is also brave. She stands up for her beliefs, even when it would be far easier to sit down and shut up.
All in all, her background — all those different elements — uniquely qualifies her for her complicated new role, as Hillel director for four campuses, working for the federation under the supervision of Rabbi Esther Reed, the senior associate director at Rutgers Hillel.
This is her story.
After she graduated from Frisch, Ms. Mizikovsky went to Williams College, a small, highly competitive liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass. “I was interested in experiencing something totally off the path,” she said. “Something totally different. And the academics are unmatched. I visited it, and right away I fell in love with it.” But some things remained the same. “I majored in religion and concentrated in Jewish studies,” she said.
“There were Jews there, but not many Orthodox Jews, maybe one or two. That meant that I had to experience Judaism in a completely, drastically different way. Keeping kosher at Williams is different from keeping kosher in Englewood.” Different as in much harder.
“Hillel there was my community,” she said. “It was my home there.
“We were too small to have any denominationalism there. We had one Shabbat service, we were praying in a room with no mechitzah, and with one kind of prayer book, with a lot of English in it. Women count in a minyan there.
“Sometimes that meant occupying a place of discomfort and being okay with it. We were one community, and so I said ‘I’m here, let me make this experience meaningful for myself.’”
Ms. Mizikovsky plunged right in. “I served as the director of religion there all four years, starting as a freshman,” she said. “It was a de facto position. I also co-founded an Israeli advocacy group in my second year. There were some pretty extreme anti-Israel activists on campus.”
That’s where the courage comes in. “There have been a few times in my life when I have had to speak up in the face of a really hostile audience,” she said.
The first time was when Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia and a disciple of Edward Said, spoke on campus. He was vitriolic in his detestation of Israel, and “he got a standing ovation,” Ms. Mizikovsky said. “I remember being the only one willing to raise my hand and speak up against him.
“My voice was almost trembling as I began a counter argument. His narrative is very extreme. He said that there is no such thing as an Israeli. I said what about my friend, a 10th-generation Israeli, a friend from school who was shot in the face with a nail gun when she was 10?”
Ms. Mizikovsky spent her junior year in the U.K., with a semester in Dublin and another in Edinburgh. Both are wonderful cities, ancient and beautiful; neither have many Jews. “In Scotland, in I think 2012, the ambassador to the U.K., Daniel Taub, spoke at school,” she said; she was studying at the University of Edinburgh then. “There were protests outside. The meeting wasn’t even held by the Jewish group, but by a political group on campus.
“The protestors came into the room, and they waited until the talk was just about to begin, and then they took off their shirts, and they were wearing Palestinian shirts underneath. And they were shouting over the speaker, so that he couldn’t speak.
“They were shouting him down.
“So I kind of stood up and said, ‘Hey, can you guys just let me speak for a minute?’ And they did.
“So I said ‘This is the nature of the university. It’s about listening to different narratives, and not silencing them. You don’t have to agree with what he is saying. Just give him a chance to speak, and then ask him questions.
“‘Silencing a narrative in any context is wrong.’
“And then the whole room quieted down. It broke the atmosphere, it changed the atmosphere, that feeling of being totally helpless, that feeling that we had lost control of the room. And then the students got up and moved closer to the ambassador, and he spoke to us, not with his prepared talk, but about what had just happened. We ended up sitting at his feet.
“Sometimes students are more willing to respect the views of other students,” she continued.
How did she have the courage to do that, to face rage alone? “I knew I had to say something,” she said. “I couldn’t just let it happen. I couldn’t. I always have been compelled to speak up for what I felt was right, no matter how unpopular it was.
“It was frightening. I won’t pretend it wasn’t. But hopefully it inspired other people to speak up the next time.”
After she graduated from Williams, Ms. Mizikovsky got a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, and then she moved into public relations, promoting cookbooks at Workman Books. “I got a lot of great experience, but deep down I knew I wanted to be doing something Jewish, something metaphysically meaningful,” she said. “So I quit my job, and the only job I applied for was this one.
“It was kind of bashert,” she said. It was meant to be. “I saw the listing, I knew that this was for me, that I had to do this — and thank God, here I am.”
Ms. Mizikovsky thinks that her youth is an asset in her new job. “The memory of being in college is pretty fresh in my mind,” she said. “I think I understand what a typical college student experiences on campus, and I am familiar with some of the most productive ways to reach them and connect with them.”
She and Rabbi Allen overlapped, which, as her new supervisor, Rabbi Reed, pointed out, is unusual. “It’s actually very beautiful,” Rabbi Reed said. “Talia was about to start before Ely Allen left. She was able to shadow him and learn from him, and he was able to be a teacher and mentor for her.
“That was really nice in terms of continuity. So often a Hillel leader starts in the fall, and the predecessor will have left in the spring.” Instead, Ms. Mizikovsky started her new job in March. Rabbi Allen left his post in July.
The job that Ms. Mizikovsky took is a fairly unusual one, at least in this part of the country. Not only does the Jewish population on each campus change every year, bringing with it a slight but perceptible change in culture, but each of the four campuses — Ramapo, William Paterson, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Bergen Community — has its own unique character.
Also, because Ms. Mizikovsky’s position is funded by the federation, her services are aimed not only at college students on those four campuses, but also at college students whose families live in the federation’s catchment area, students who may live at home while they are at a school beyond the area’s boundaries or who are home for summer break or shorter midyear vacations. She can cast a wide net.
“We have a few major initiatives planned,” she said. “Number one is publicity. We will use traditional methods, and also social media — we have new Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for all four schools. We want to get more and more people walking through our doors. We will publicize it in every way we can.” (On Twitter and Instagram she’s @HillelNNJ; Facebook is Hillel of Northern New Jersey.)
“Our second initiative is that we are really investing in our student leaders through Hillel’s Engagement Internship program. Student leaders will receive a stipend to engage with unaffiliated Jewish students on campus, bring them to Hillel events, and connect with them personally.
“We want to build a culture of student leadership, self motivation, and ownership. We hope that students will take a greater role in their own Hillel.”
At the beginning of the month, Ms. Mizikovsky and six students from her Hillel went to St. Louis, Mo., for the Hillel Institute, a four-day conference that drew about 550 participants, about half of them students. Although most of the tracks offered were for professionals, she joined the students — the cost of whose attendance was paid for by Hillel — at the Engagement Institute track.
“The institute introduces a model of relationship-based community building,” she said. “It teaches the students how to interact on a one-on-one level, forming relationships with new students, and it teaches them how to turn these conversations Jewish in order to encourage Jewish journeys, in no matter what direction.
“We do a lot of workshops there, mainly about listening and empathy, and also about Jewish values, and how to connect Jewish values to our other ideals and passions.
“It’s not about dragging students to Hillel,” she continued. “It’s about having conversations with other Jews who are unaffiliated, and attendance comes naturally from that. You build relationships and keep building them. You start building networks.
“We teach them to be network weavers.”
Students also were able to weave each other into those networks. “The students got to bond with each other,” Ms. Mizikovsky said. “They felt inspired by being a part of this gigantic organization, that reaches across the country and around the world to engage Jewish students.
“Hillel used to be more of a program-based model when I was a student,” she added. “In the last few years, they transitioned into being more relationship-based. There is a really cool study that shows that even one interaction, one conversation between Jewish students actually affects the course of that student’s Jewish trajectory. And obviously, the more conversations, the more that trajectory is affected. It is powerful.
“And the student leaders feel really empowered, knowing that by reaching out, welcoming, and listening, I can affect this other student’s life.”
The model is useful not only for Hillel but for life in general, she added.
The theme for the whole conference was race, power, and privilege, Ms. Mizikovsky said. The speakers included Rabbi Saul Berman, who talked about his experience marching to Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a very young man; Rabbi Susan Talve, who discussed her recent experiences in nearby Ferguson, and Yavilah McCoy, the African-American Jew who founded Ayecha, an organization that advocates for Jews of color.
Back to the initiatives — the third “is to make meaningful experiences, to engage students on issues that they are passionate about and correlate that to the Jewish experience; to show the perspective Judaism can offer,” Ms. Mizikovsky said.
“There is every kind of Jew in Hillel,” she continued. “That’s what makes Hillel amazing. It is not about making everyone Orthodox. It is about meeting them where they are and helping them grow — but not making them grow in any particular direction. We are not a kiruv organization” — that is, Hillel, does not do the kind of religious outreach specifically denominational groups offer. “If Judaism to someone is community service, then we offer community service opportunities to that person.
“It is important to me to engage with the idea that if for someone there is a home-building project that they want to do on Shabbat, if that’s how they honor Shabbat — and to me that’s antithetical to what Shabbat is — but if that’s how they honor Shabbat, the Jewish community needs to learn to live with that.
“We have to live with a certain amount of tension and discomfort. We have to sit with discomfort, not run away the second we are confronted with something that is different from what we believe. That is what diversity is. We have to sit there and listen to whatever it is that other Jews have to say.”
Although Ms. Mizikovsky is taking over Rabbi Allen’s job, one aspect of it is new, and that aspect is unusual. Although she is part of the staff at the federation, her supervision will come from Rutgers; she is not part of its regular staff, but she will report to Rabbi Reed, who will be her supervisor and mentor. She will be able to get experience-based advice from specialists at Rutgers Hillel, particularly on the Israel advocacy work that will be another large part of her mandate, and which is particularly important to her.
“The idea is that the federation staff is in the federation business, and it is really good at what it does,” Rabbi Reed said. “We at Hillel are in the campus business, and we are really good at what we do. Organizationally, this makes sense for all of us.”
Ms. Mizikovsky is excited about the challenge that faces her, and she thrives on its complexity. She thinks that the new arrangement with Rutgers is wise. “I feel like I have a really great network of support and resources around me,” she said. And she is entirely onboard with Hillel’s switch in emphasis from programming to relationships. “This new paradigm will provide greatly expanded pathways to Jewish involvement for the Jewish student community,” she said.