Never mind that Rachel Eden Klein, the new executive director for the Hillels of Westchester “was not very active in Hillel at Delaware or Penn,” she said, referring to the colleges where she did her undergraduate and graduate work. “What drove me to this is that I was the statistic of the disengaged, young adult Jew who wasn’t involved.”
Klein, 35, believes her own young adult experience will resonate with those she seeks to attract. “Many young Jews have that problem,” she said. “I know the alternative arguments to give.”
Then again perhaps it’s not so surprising. Klein is a self-proclaimed “temple brat”; her parents started their own Reform synagogue in their Manalapan, N.J., living room when Klein was still in her playpen. With the example of her parents’ leadership roles in the congregation, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with the same rabbi, Klein has a clear affinity for communal Jewish life. She had also gone to a Reform sleep-away camp in Maryland, took a lot of Jewish studies courses at the University of Delaware and came home for every Jewish holiday.
Coming to Westchester also reflects her personal Jewish roots as well. Both her parents were raised in Westchester, and the family made the routine schlep from Manalapan, where she was raised, back to Westchester for Passover seders and holidays with grandparents.
Klein, who earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania, comes to the Hillel position after a decade working for the state of New Jersey overseeing child welfare. When that agency was closed, Klein returned to her home synagogue working in a variety of roles, including teaching and serving as the senior youth group adviser, ultimately becoming the executive director.
She particularly loved her work with the students at her synagogue. “That was the single greatest experience of my professional life,” said Klein. “I stay in touch with all these kids. The transition is so natural from high school to college.”
Klein believes her professional training as a social worker is a natural fit for her current job. “My background in mental health has prepared me to work with high school and college students,” she said. “Social workers are tour guides through life.”
Her portfolio includes four Westchester county campuses — SUNY/Purchase (where the Hillels of Westchester office is based), Manhattanville, Pace University in Pleasantville and Sarah Lawrence.
“So far, it’s been perfect,” said Klein, who relishes “working with other Jews. I love organizational dynamics and working within a large nonprofit.”
Klein is grateful that she’s “walking into a healthy Hillel, with creative programming, solid representation on campus and a magnificent board.” Which, of course, doesn’t mean that Klein doesn’t have her own vision or ambitions for her new role.
One of her goals is “growth, with more students engaged,” said Klein. “There is great momentum behind tikkun olam [repairing the world]. I’d like to see more visibility of students and organizations in Westchester County.”
When asked about the Open Hillel movement, whose members believe that Hillel squelches debate on Israel, Klein said, “I’m immersed in the Hillel mission, which is support of Jewish life and the hope to positively impact the Jewish community. It hasn’t come up on my campuses. There’s not a simple answer.”
Of more concern is the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, although Klein noted, “we’re lucky that it’s reasonably dormant on our campuses. My No. 1 goal is to give them [students] opportunities to learn. The students on the Purchase campus have been involved for a few years in Hillel. We can have an educated conversation on why BDS is wrong. Information is key. As far as I’m concerned, Hillel supports the people of Israel and the Jewish state. I want my students to be informed and engaged.”
Klein is especially pleased that the former executive director, Saul Spangenberg, encouraged so many Hillel students to participate in Birthright Israel. “Participation increased ten-fold,” she said. “There’s a real love of Israel.”
Klein is also interested in helping students find services that are meaningful to them. “There’s a lot of discomfort around religion,” she said. With her students, Klein is having conversations about creative services, music-based services and learning services. She also intends to take her Hillel members “synagogue hopping” throughout Westchester.
She said, “I want to expose them to Judaism beyond the campus. They’ll learn something new every time they’re stepping off campus.”