A professionals’ homecoming
By Deborah Silverthorn
When Hillel International made Dallas its home base, at the Hyatt Regency Dallas, from Dec. 12 to 15 for its 2022 HIGA (Hillel International Global Assembly) conference, it was home-sweet-home for at least seven participants. Joining more than 1,200 attendees, celebrating Hillel’s 100 years by “Building on 100, Thriving at 100 and Shaping the next 100,” were DFW-raised Sarah Balis, Jen Berman, Naomi Fainchtein, Melissa Friedensohn, Jade Gordon, Carson Pinker and Mimi Zimmerman.
“We’re honored to host professionals from the largest Jewish student organization in the world, one which I still consider ‘home,’ a group that makes a difference every single day for the future of the Jewish people,” said Igor Alterman, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas president and CEO. Alterman came to his post in June after a dozen years as a Hillel professional.
“My engagement with Jewish life as a young adult began with my involvement in Hillel Russia, and CASE (Central Asia and Southeastern Europe) Hillels. Its professionals provide critical work to transform not only Hillel, but also to transform the Jewish world. It’s virtually impossible to find any Jewish organization without at least one former Hillel professional on staff. [They] know the key to success is engagement,” Alterman said.
The conference, introducing Hillel’s “Promise of a New Generation” campaign to raise $150 million, provided networking, education and speakers. The group volunteered with Undies for Everyone, an organization providing for children living in poverty or crisis.
It was the largest kashering effort ever for Dallas Kosher: three meals for each of three days for the 1,000-plus guests were prepared by the hotel’s team under the supervision of the agency. Kosher Palate provided much of the first two days’ meals.
Attendees, from many of the more than 850 campuses in 16 countries with a Hillel presence, heard from Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks; Hillel International President and CEO Adam Lehman; United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Dr. Deborah Lipstadt; and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University and Singularity University futurists Jeffrey Rogers and Lisa Kay Solomon.
“We’re very appreciative of Dallas’ Federation and the community that welcomed us,” said Sarah Fried, Hillel International’s chief advancement officer. “Our founding pillars reflect the core values that we still hold today and, as we enter our second century, we want to continue to engage every Jewish student.”
Sarah Balis, the daughter of Drs. Amy and David Balis, is a Plano West Senior High and Arizona State University graduate. Raised at Congregation Anshai Torah, she was a member of BBYO’s Ginny Weinstein chapter and NTO’s regional board. She is now a Hillel Springboard Fellow at the University of Michigan, and Hillel has been “her place” since her first week at ASU.
“I never missed an event. I spent seven semesters on leadership, including as president, and it was awesome,” said Balis, who after college spent a year as a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow. “After graduation, many people said I should work for Hillel. It was mid-pandemic, I wasn’t sure what was next and the Springboard Fellowship presented itself to me.”
Balis now hosts “Shmooze with Sarah” get-togethers, often with more than 100 students; she monitors a 400-plus-member chat and leads challah bakes with proceeds supporting students facing hunger.
“Ann Arbor can be ‘chilly’ but it’s a great college town and there are so many Jewish students. Hillel has been a huge part of my life and I’m grateful for every experience,” she said.
Jen Berman is the daughter of Sharon and David Berman. Raised at Congregation Shearith Israel, she is a former BBYO Sally Blum and Fannie Sablosky member and graduated from Plano West Senior High. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree from Temple University.
“I learned about the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) from my KU Hillel director and then started my career there for 10 years. It was life-changing,” said Berman, formerly JDC’s brand director and now in that role at Hillel International. “I’ve sought positions that allow me to give, to help fix the world and affect the Jewish world. As a student, Hillel gave me access to mentors and mentoring, to growth and development. As a professional I want to share that influence far and wide.”
Celebrating Hillel’s centennial is a key part of Berman’s day-to-day responsiblities.
“Hillel’s impact over 100 years has been enormous. We walk the walk across campuses and universities the world over, and it’s my job to help the organization ‘talk the talk’ and get the word out about just how vital and instrumental we are.”
Naomi Fainchtein, daughter of Meryl and Scott Nason, was raised at Congregation Shearith Israel. She is a graduate of Northwestern University with a bachelor’s in journalism and history and the University of Texas at Austin with a master’s in educational leadership. Fainchtein is the assistant director at American University Hillel in Washington, D.C.
“Working for Hillel is not just about the joy I get from my students on my individual campus, but also being a part of a global movement of professionals who are all equally passionate about Jewish life on campus and the strength of the Jewish community at large. Getting to learn from and socialize with over a thousand of my colleagues at HIGA was inspiring and motivating,” said Fainchtein.
Melissa Friedensohn, the daughter of Rhonda and David Duchin and wife of Lance, was raised at congregations Anshai Torah, Beth Torah and Temple Emanu-El. A graduate of The Theatre Collective at Richardson High School and Washington University in St. Louis, she’s spent seven years as director of Hillels of North Texas serving Collin College, Dallas Colleges, Texas Woman’s University, University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Dallas.
“I can’t say how rewarding a career this has become for me,” said Friedensohn. “I’ve worked at Jewish organizations in our community with teens and those through their 30s and I now love being on-campus during students’ most formative and critical time in life.”
For Friedensohn, gathering with so many was a great start to her winter break.
“HIGA allows us to recharge,” said Friedensohn, “to reimagine and build connections with colleagues from around the world.”
For Jade Gordon, the daughter of Theresa Cuny and Phil Gordon, raised at Temple Emanu-El and URJ Greene Family Camp, her Hillel experience was self-induced. As a freshman at Stephen F. Austin State University, she found herself alone as a Jewish “community.” She saw a post by Rabbi Neal Katz (Congregation Beth El in Tyler) for the East Texas Student Association. Searching the post for SFA students, she messaged three she found. Soon, the four hosted their “Jewish Student Union” table, connecting to more.
“Rabbi Katz, then Rabbi Kenny Weiss (Houston Hillel executive director), helped us get started, gave us a SFA Hillel logo, sponsored activities and now, SFA has a Hillel,” said Gordon, named to Hillel’s International Student Cabinet and the Hillel International Board as a sophomore at age 20.
“I went from one of the smallest Jewish campuses to one of the largest and, at both, Hillel is influencing students’ futures. Being at HIGA, realizing how many people make this organization special, was incredible,” said Gordon, now Social Justice Springboard Fellow at Tulane University, which has a Jewish population approximated at 40%-plus.
Carson Pinker, a Highland Park High School and University of Miami graduate, is the daughter of Melanie and Eric Pinker. She served as a madricha (teaching assistant) at Temple Emanu-El, her home congregation; she was a member of BBYO’s Fannie Sablosky chapter and sweetheart to the David Berger chapter.
“Jewish life was important to me growing up and when I got to Miami I went to Hillel. I knew no one, but I ended up with a built-in community,” said Pinker, who served on leadership council and who is now a Hillel Springboard Fellow at North Carolina State.
“There was Hurricane Irma, the pandemic, so much hardship but Hillel and the people there were my touchstone,” said Pinker. “Walking around the conference, meeting many caring, and caring about being Jewish, professionals, I know my experience wasn’t unique.
“My fellowship has been amazing and a great way to ‘hold off’ the rest of life for a couple of years while doing something meaningful. It’s important to me to help our Jewish community, of between 400 and 500 students, grow and to create a Jewish space,” said Pinker, who will attend graduate school at George Washington University in the fall.
Mimi Platt Zimmerman, the daughter of Jody and Mel Platt and wife of Fort Worth’s Congregation Beth-El Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, came to a career at Hillel because while she was a student at Southern Methodist University, there was no such resource for Jewish students. That’s changed, and SMU’s thriving Hillel is now led by Rabbi Heidi Coretz, but the impact was great for the future rebbetzin and now Jewish community adviser at Texas Christian University.
While at SMU, Zimmerman was involved in programming through the chaplain’s office. However, the lack of formal support for the Jewish population brought her to, after college, serve as interim Hillel director at the University of Maryland and then Hillel liaison to the Florida Hillel Council supporting several schools.
A former Jenny Schepps BBYO member raised at Temple Emanu-El and Temple Shalom, Zimmerman earned a master’s degree at Hebrew Union College. She brings to her role at TCU her professional leadership experience including years at Akiba Yavneh Academy and Temple Emanu-El.
“TCU’s program is growing, we’re seeing more students each semester and we’re building a great program,” said Zimmerman. “The HIGA conference allowed us the important opportunity to connect, to learn about what each other’s organizations are doing and to make really wonderful connections with our colleagues.”
Alterman, who spoke to attendees at the Stakeholders’ Experience of donors, foundational leaders and Hillel’s board of directors and then with Lipstadt at a JFGD-sponsored King David Society reception added, “Hillel in December and again in 2023 and BBYO’s International Convention in February — the Federation is thrilled to have Dallas’ Jewish community known as a welcoming one.”