By Jori Epstein
It was at his alma mater, UC Davis, where (Rabbi) Matt Rosenberg had his start with Hillel. But it wasn’t his time on campus that led him there — at this point, Rosenberg says, “his Jewish journey had ended for awhile” post-bar mitzvah.
Rosenberg began volunteer work with the American Red Cross in high school and college, overseeing CPR and first aid instruction before advancing to disaster training. After future wife, Jen, attended a class and they kept contact, she steered him to a first date at the UC Davis Hillel.
“I was petrified because I didn’t know what to expect and I fumbled my way through the [service],” Rosenberg said. “I left as quickly as I could, but her interest in Judaism propelled us to take an introductory class together and I was hooked.”
Through this course, Rosenberg began to envision the intersection of his interests. He longed to use his disaster management experience to help the Jewish people and wanted to become a rabbi.
“I remember going to talk to one of the deans of the [Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles] and saying, ‘Hey, I want to become a rabbi,’” Rosenberg said. “He laughed at me, since I didn’t realize how much I had to learn.”
Rosenberg balanced his appreciation for the Red Cross with his rabbinical aspirations for nine months. He coordinated volunteer responses to Hurricane Katrina, floods, tornadoes and fires before facing his decision. Moving to Israel, Rosenberg studied at a conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem for the 2006-07 academic year.
Committed, he soon found himself en route to Ziegler. He enjoyed several student pulpits and rabbinical responsibilities at small synagogues, as well as an internship at Hadat Ari El congregation in Sacramento Valley, Calif. As he neared ordination, he sought something more permanent.
“I met with recruiters from Hillel International and they heard about my previous jobs and background at the Red Cross,” Rosenberg said. “They thought Texas A&M University [TAMU] would be a good fit and I concur.”
Rosenberg begins this school year as the new executive director and campus rabbi of TAMU Hillel. His responsibilities include meeting Jewish students on campus, developing relationships with them and providing programming.
“We have a beautiful building that opened last November — I want to fill it and create a larger Jewish community at Texas A&M so that Texas Jews stay in state,” Rosenberg said. “I’m working with faculty to create a Jewish studies program and do more tzedakah and social justice activities.”
Currently, the TAMU Hillel offers three weekly activities: Shabbat dinner and services on Friday night; a Monday mochas program for socialization; and varied Wednesday programming. Holidays and Gig ‘Em Week orientation activities join the mix.
“We like to consider ourselves a home away from home for Jewish students in Aggieland,” said Ben Deutsch, president of Hillel’s student board. “Though [the school does] have a Jewish fraternity and sorority, we’re the main organization for Jewish students to meet, hang out and study.”
Carrollton resident Trudi Herstein, mother of two TAMU Hillel past presidents, appreciates Hillel’s work toward that goal.
“[I like that my kids can] know there’s Jewish life anywhere they want to be,” Herstein said. “They can know they’re Jewish and they don’t have to leave it behind or search for it.”
Inspired to grow TAMU’s Jewish community, Herstein now serves on Hillel’s corporate board. She also posts news and events on a “Jewish Aggie Parents” Facebook page to support the students and offer parents a local contact.
Rosenberg works with the same mission.
“It’s our goal that someone on the student board knows every Jewish student on campus,” he said. “I’ll be on campus a lot at the student center to meet students and I encourage any alumni in the area to reach out to me so I can get to know them. I’ll visit all the major cities including future trips to the Metroplex — so I’m around.”
For more information on TAMU Hillel, visit www.tamuhillel.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.