New UA Hillel staffers foster identity, diversity

Ryan Woloshin
Ryan Woloshin
Naama Cohen
Naama Cohen

Positive Jewish experiences in college may predict greater future involvement with Judaism. And if that’s the case, the new director of student life at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, Ryan Wolo­shin, says he’s raring to go.

Woloshin arrived on campus from Virginia in mid-July. He will focus on “recruitment, engagement and social media” to bring UA Jewish students into the fold. Woloshin received a bachelor’s degree in political science and environmental studies from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., in May. He was also a political organizer for Tim Kane, Virginia’s junior U.S. senator, and other Democratic candidates.

Taking the Hillel position reflected a deeper concern. “I cared more about the growth of the Jewish-American populace,” Wol­o­shin told the AJP. “I wanted to continue the revitalization of Jewish-American communities,” especially in places outside of big cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

“Assimilation is a huge problem in the Jewish population in the United States. We need to stick out a bit in the cultural melting pot,” he says, “develop the identity to help us stand out as Jews in the United States.”

Woloshin grew up in a Conservative Jewish military family. He became a Bar Mitzvah at Cong. Rodef Shalom in Hampton, Va., proudly noting that it’s the home of Rabbi Gilah Dror, the first female rabbi to lead a rabbinical organization in Israel. Woloshin, 22, has lived in Michigan and Virginia, as well as in England and Germany.

“We were used to being the only practicing Jews in military communities,” he says. “I experienced Jewish communities in Europe and in the American South, where the need is for Jewish survival.” At the UA, students have “a medley of Jewish experiences, from a positive relationship with Judaism at camp or BBYO, or no connection to their Jewish background,” says Woloshin, adding that involvement in Hillel can change that. “Instead of just increasing numbers, I want to build relationships.”

Naama Cohen, the new Israel fellow, or shlicha, at Hillel also seeks to build relationships; her chief goal is to encourage students to develop a more comprehensive view of Israel. People think that “walking down the street in Israel there are wars all over the place,” says Cohen, 28. “I want to help UA students understand that Israel is not just about war. We are very diverse.”

The new shlicha grew up in Kiryat Gat in “a very Zionist family, very supportive of the State of

Israel,” she told the AJP. “My family comes from across the religious spectrum. I have uncles who are rabbis; some family members are Torah scribes. Two cousins live in Europe and are married to non-Jews.”

A graduate of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Cohen served in the Israel Defense Forces and is still in a reserve search-and-rescue unit. During Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, her unit was stationed at the border near Gaza, and “if a rocket fell on a house, we were the first ones to help [Israeli] citizens,” says Cohen. “We were not warriors.”

After her tour in the IDF, “I went to Thailand for a month and a half. I met tourists who knew nothing about Israel. They thought we were like Afghanistan,” says Cohen, who arrived in Tucson last month, her first trip to the United States. “It’s always been my dream since summer camp in Greece to be a shlicha. I want to present Israel as a beautiful place,” she says. “Each time I go to the Western Wall — and there have been thousands of times — I feel something special inside that I can’t explain. It makes me feel like I belong.”

Cohen hopes that many UA students will travel to Israel. “They don’t have to live there. From here they start their careers. They may be political or financial or whatever they choose,” says Cohen. “I want them to become unofficial ambassadors, to experience Israel,” whether they go as volunteers, on Birthright trips, for internships, or traveling with family or friends.

After her first month in Tucson, she says, “it feels like quite a peaceful place so far. But it is full of life.”