Linda Askenazi, happily working at the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, didn’t plan to apply for an opening as executive director of Brooklyn College’s Hillel chapter.
But when an insider told her “They wanted a rabbi” and it had to be a man, Askenazi got annoyed and applied.
Once hired at Hillel, Askenazi didn’t plan to stay there very long. Two years, she thought.
Twenty-five years later — thousands of students and countless we-met-at-Hillel-shidduch-stories later — she’s leaving.
Askenazi, 54, one of the first female Hillel executive directors in the country, a fixture who has overseen the chapter’s growth from a dormant building at the edge of campus into a renovated student center that houses a wide variety of educational and cultural activities, is becoming the executive director of Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camps in upstate Copake.
A “totally non-Orthodox, glatt kosher,” UJA-Federation-affiliated institution, the camp separate summer programs for youngsters and adults.
Hillel’s board of directors will honor her at its annual meeting on Monday; two days later, she will start to clean out her office.
“Hillel’s my baby,” she says, reflectively but not nostalgically. “I raised four children in the Hillel.” Students at the commuter school got used to seeing Askenazi’s kids in the Hillel building. “I think Hillel’s an amazing place for children to be running around.” Why did she stay a quarter-century?
“Because I need a huge amount of diversity” on the job, she says. “I didn’t feel I was doing the same thing for 25 years.” Over that time, she’s tried to inject a citywide perspective into Hillel’s activities, and watched a shift in student activism from the Soviet Jewry movement to responses to other manifestations of anti-Semitism abroad, with Israel always at the center.
“It ebbs and flows,” she says. “The percentage of activists” — the leaders, not the followers — “is a small percentage.”
And despite the perception of campuses as hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment, as hostile places for Jews, Brooklyn College has remained peaceful, says Askenazi, a founder of the Committee Against Prejudice (CAP) that brought together students from various religious and ethnic backgrounds. “Most people get along pretty well. The overall tenor of the campus is quite peaceful.” Why is she leaving Hillel?
“I’m ready for a switch,” she says. “I had done almost everything I wanted to accomplish.”
Hillel, summer camp — it’s all the same, Askenazi says. “The Jewish people are my passion. It’s all one family.” With the same goals, with the same “core values,” with the same Jewish professional network as contacts, “it’s all seamless to me,” she says.
Askenazi was careful to put in place a succession plan. Five years ago she told Nadya Drukker, a Ukrainian-born Brooklyn College graduate who began working as director of Hillel’s Center for Russian Jewish Life in 1997, that Drukker would take over as acting executive director.
“She didn’t believe me,” Askenazi says. “She said, ‘You’ll never leave.’”
This summer, Drukker, assistant director of the Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College, becomes executive director.
The Hillel chapter now is home to a social action club, a musical ensemble, separate clubs for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox students, a newspaper, a Sephardic club and other student organizations that began on Askenazi’s watch.
A native of the Bronx who grew up Orthodox in Queens, Askenazi calls herself “a Hillel Jew.” No denominational labels. That’s how she has run Hillel, she says.
“My pride is changing people’s attitudes, people’s attitudes about each other. My purpose is to change a stigma,” she says — stereotypes that members of one denomination of Judaism hold about another, that students hold about the homeless youngsters who come for tutoring once a week, that straight students hold about gay Jews who have their own space at Hillel, or about developmentally challenged people.
Askenazi tells about the 24-year-old man with Down’s Syndrome who she hired five years ago to work in the building as a messenger and greeter at the front door. Don’t do it, she was told. The students will never accept such a person, she was told. “I didn’t give up,” she says.
“Within a day, the students were giving him high fives,” Askenazi says. The young man stayed at Hillel until he moved into a group home.
She succeeded, she says, in “giving a face to differences.”
“I created” — no boasting, she says — “an amazingly diverse community,” both among the students her programs brought into Hillel and among the board members she recruited.
One of the faculty members she brought onto the board was Robert Cherry, a professor of economics. A self-described “fallen leftist” and expert in “radical” economics, his previous ties with the Jewish community had been through the secular, Yiddish-education movement.
Askenazi, he says, “convinced me to be on the board,” where he met Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds. “She has a view that Hillel is for all Jews.”
“It worked out quite well,” says Cherry, who served for five years as board president.
“I probably would not have as nuanced an understanding of the broader Jewish community, particularly the Orthodox community,” had he not been involved with Hillel, he says.
Today, he says, “some of my best friends are Orthodox,” something he could not say earlier.
And, in turn, “Hillel changed” because of his left-of-center orientation, Cherry says. “I’ve had a role generating certain kinds of programs [on] social justice issues.”
Askenazi calls herself both open-minded (to ideas) and inflexible (to giving up on her ideals).
“I’m very, very opinionated and stubborn,” she says. A board member, she says, recently described a victim of her unbending spirit as being “Askenazied.” “I have a very strong, persuasive way,” she says — “That’s what he meant to be ‘Askenazied.’”
Edith Everett, a board member of Brooklyn Hillel and of national Hillel, understands.
“It’s hard for her to take ‘no’ for an answer — I find her almost always to be right,” says Everett, who has known Askenazi 25 years and often serves as a “sounding board,” she says. “She understands she can be a little bit outspoken.”
Askenazi is “highly motivated. She’s a creative thinker. She cares about the students. She cares about Jews and Jewish continuity,” Everett says.
A student orchestra from Israel came to the United States to give performances in the early 1990s, but discovered at the last moment that sleeping accommodations in the New York area had not been arranged, Everett says. “What can we do?” the leader asked Askenazi.
“Not to worry,” Askenazi answered. She set up sleeping bags and cots in the Hillel building for the students, and lined up home hospitality near the campus for the orchestra’s adult leaders.
“In less than a week it was put together,” Everett recalls. “I knew that if you needed something done right away,” you ask Askenazi to do it. “It will happen and it will happen in a timely way. Nothing is too hard for her.”
Everett visited some of the orchestra members during a recent visit to Israel. “They still remember [Askenazi] very well.”
Askenazi says she will make herself available to Brooklyn Hillel after she leaves the executive director’s post. “Maybe one day I’ll join the board. I’d be open to that.”
Askenazi says the Berkshire camps were a good match for her Jewish vision. Coincidentally, she says, she spent one summer there as a youth. “I have incredibly wonderful memories.”
When she was interviewed for the camp position, she says, the preference for a male she encountered when the Hillel job came open 25 years ago never surfaced. “Not at all,” she says. “The camp would have been glad to hire a woman 25 years ago.”