UA Hillel director continues to grow Jewish community

Michelle Blumenberg
Michelle Blumenberg

Michelle Blumenberg, executive director at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, has spent her career helping to secure and expand a vibrant Jewish community in Tucson and beyond.

“I feel that it’s important to give what I can to help ensure that we have a Jewish community in the future,” she says. “And not only that, but that we have leaders who are trained, and who care about the Jewish community, however they become involved.

“That’s really important about Hillel; we’re a pluralistic community.”

The UA Hillel Foundation 100 Years of Celebration featuring comedian Arsenio Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18 marks the 75th anniversary of local Hillel programming and the 25th year of Blumenberg as executive director (see related story, page 1).

Blumenberg began her 30-plus year career with Hillel International at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation. Her nine-month temporary position turned into a full-time job, which slightly delayed her plans to attend graduate school. When she started her graduate studies, part of her practicum experience was founding Hillel at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

After spending six years working at her alma mater, Blumenberg was recruited to apply for the executive director position at the UA Hillel in Tucson by Richard Joel, former president and director at Hillel International, and David Raphael, director of campus services for Hillel International at Boston University.

She signed on as executive director of the UA Hillel in 1992, breaking two local traditions: she was the first woman to run the campus organization, and she wasn’t a rabbi.

“It was an awesome opportunity that the U of A Hillel board gave to me,” says Blumenberg.

During the transition, a handful of Hillel students balked at the change, and she spent some of that first semester proving herself.

“On the other hand, there were lots of other students who were thrilled that I was here, trying to move Hillel in a different direction,” says Blumenberg. “I came in with a very different background. And because I had been a program professional, I really knew what it took to put together programs, to do that outreach and engagement work with students, with building relationships on campus and in the community.”

Adam Rozansky, a senior at the UA Eller School of Management, was very active with the UA Hillel Foundation as an undergraduate.

For Rozansky, whose background includes Jewish summer camp and a gap year in Israel, a strong Jewish community was essential when he started to look at colleges. The Hillel Foundation was his first stop as he toured the UA campus.

The UA Hillel is unique because there isn’t a rabbi on staff, Rozansky says.

“It’s totally student-run, the services, which is something I think is really important,” he says. “I think that when it comes to Judaism, or it comes to actually doing services, you want to be around your peers.”

As a finance major, Rozansky had an interest in seeing how the business side of Hillel worked, so he volunteered to become an unofficial student ambassador for Hillel’s board of directors.

“It was a really good experience being able to do that,” he says. “And having Michelle there as someone who I can always go to, and ask questions about things that I’m interested in when it comes to my studies.”

He is elated to see the Jewish community recognize such a humble and invaluable person at the 100 Years of Hillel Celebration. “Being able to honor [Blumenberg] is going to be really special, because I don’t think she gets enough credit for what she does.”

Blumenberg was only about five months into her position at the UA when she took part in a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona mission to Israel. “It was a quick way to get to know lots of people well, and a wonderful opportunity that the community afforded me to go in order to integrate Hillel into the Jewish community fabric.”

At the time, Hillel was almost an afterthought when the Jewish community would meet and organize its events or outreach, she says. This was something Blumenberg and the Hillel board of directors worked to change.

“College students are important, in terms of building future leaders for the community,” she says, “so college students need to be sitting at the table.”

The JFSA was one of the first Jewish federations in the country to take on a welcoming approach to community organizing, Blumenberg says, and they look to Hillel as an example. This open-door approach gives Tucson one of its most beautiful and unique strengths, she adds.

Blumenberg is also a member of the executive board of the UA University Religious Council, an interfaith coalition that protects religious freedom, which makes Hillel a valuable partner on campus.

“What our work does is, not only grow Jewish leaders for the future, but we also make the U of A a safe place to be Jewish for our students,” she adds.

During the community mission in November 1992, Blumenberg announced Hillel would send Jewish students from the UA to Israel by the end of 1993. The campus organization fulfilled that commitment, sending a group of students every two years, before the creation of Birthright Israel in 1999.

“Israel is an important part of Jewish peoplehood,” says Blumenberg. “And being able to experience Israel with your peers when you’re a young adult …  can be pivotal in terms of Jewish identity formation and involvement.”

Whether engaging with community leaders, working with students at UA or experiencing the impact of local lay leaders, narrowing down the highlights of her work is near impossible, says Blumenberg.

“All of this, it’s great; I have a great job,” she says.

No matter the era, or technology, keeping the Jewish community strong is a matter of reaching out to students, she says.

“We’re always looking to expand our reach, meaning we should always be engaging more students — that’s our mandate,” says Blumenberg.