Rabbi Moshe Schonbrun, who recently came to Tucson as rabbi for Jewish Arizonans on Campus at the University of Arizona, says after he and his wife, Esti, were married, they decided to put all of their efforts into maximizing their positive impact on the Jewish community.
After meeting the staff and students involved with JAC’s programming, taking the helm as the new rabbi-and-wife at the UA branch was an easy choice.
“We were very impressed, and we wanted to join a successful team,” says Schonbrun.
Growing up, says Schonbrun, becoming a rabbi was always in the back of his mind, and for the past 12 years he has studied Talmudic tradition and law at the Talmudic Research Center in Passaic, N.J, as well as the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And he recently graduated from the Ner LeElef rabbinical training program at the Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, N.J.
Schonbrun hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., but says hiking, bird watching and joining a close knit, humble community has always held more appeal for him than the Big Apple hustle-and-bustle. Plus, a more laidback, West Coast-influenced attitude and avoiding bitter, snowy winters will be a welcome change, he says with a laugh.
Since it was founded in 2005, JAC’s flagship program has been the 10-week Maimonides Leaders Fellowship, which offers beginner and advanced classes that teach in-depth Jewish traditions and heritage and offer participants a $400 stipend for completing the course. The organization also provides other faith-based classes and programs for Jewish students attending the UA and Arizona State University, from Shabbat meals and free coffee sessions with JAC leaders to 10-day free Birthright Israel tours and summer educational training via Israel 2.0.
Esti Schonbrun earned her master’s degree in social work at Long Island University, Brooklyn.
Throughout her college career, she studied addictive and normative behavior, and has extensive experience working with young people recovering from chemical dependency.
As a self-described “people person,” she enjoys the benefits of helping everyday people get back on track.
“I very much believe in the potential of every human being,” she says.
She looks forward to hosting JAC’s weekly Shabbat dinners and sees offering Jewish students a safe haven as an easy way to practice chesed, or loving-kindness. The birth of their 8-month-old son, Yehuda, also influenced the Schonbruns’ decision to take on their new roles.
“We very much dreamed of having an open home,” she says, explaining that studying in Israel, she saw how helpful such an arrangement can be for students and a community. “And when the opportunity did arise, it definitely attracted us to the [JAC] position.”
Rabbi Jordan Brumer, director and founder at JAC, says the cornerstone of his organization’s programing is to inspire Jewish students to engage their faith and bolster the community.
“There’s continuous demand for the various programing, and the feedback and response has been very positive,” he says.
Regarding the new local leadership, Brumer says Rabbi Schonbrun’s warm, personable and communicative approach to education will be an invaluable addition to the organization. He’s eager for the Schonbruns to begin working with Sophie Gibly, program director at JAC, who has managed the Tucson branch since fall of 2015.
“I’m confident and excited to see the results,” Brumer says.
Gibly says she immersed herself in JAC’s programming while earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in intermedia from ASU. After graduation, the Tucson native spent a year studying in two seminary colleges in Jerusalem, the Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya and the Shearim College of Jewish Studies for Women. Although living in Israel is part of her long-term goals, Gibly moved back home in order to take her position on campus.
“When the opportunity to work for JAC opened up, it was definitely something I wanted to do,” says Gibly.
JAC approaches everything from a team perspective, she says, and working for the organization is a lifestyle rather than a job. During the Schonbruns’ interview and hiring process, Gibly was very impressed by their educational backgrounds, experience and temperament.
“They’re amazing,” Gibly says. “They’re so kind, they’re so eager and they seem like very good people.”
She’s excited for students to meet the Schonbruns because of the example they set, combining dedication to their family and faith with a high regard for education.
Schonbrun certainly takes education seriously — he describes spending 16-hour days, plus most weekends, studying throughout his school career as intense but wonderful — but he also makes time for leisure. He loves basketball and looks forward to immersing himself in the strong, playful rivalry between the Sun Devils and Wildcats. Plus, having the “bear down” mentality both on and off the court is perfect for succeeding when life takes a sudden turn, he says.
More important, Schonbrun is thrilled to plant roots in Tucson with his new family by opening their doors to the community.
“And we really want the Jewish students to become part of our family,” says Schonbrun.
David J. Del Grande is a freelance writer in Tucson.