Fostering an Inclusive and Vibrant Jewish Environment at University of Maryland: Rabbi Ari Israel

Courtesy of Rabbi Ari Israel. From left: Phil Margolius, UMD Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Ari Israel and Phyllis G. Margolius Impossible Dream Award committee member Joshua Maxey.

Rabbi Ari Israel, who is in his 22nd year as executive director of the University of Maryland Hillel, recently became the second recipient of the Phyllis G. Margolius Impossible Dream Award. The award, which is given by the Phyllis Margolius Family Foundation, recognizes significant contributions to the Jewish community through innovative leadership and dedicated service and highlights Maryland Hillel’s ongoing efforts to foster an inclusive and dynamic environment under its longtime executive director.

Could you share what this award represents and its significance to you?

The Impossible Dream Award celebrates visionary leadership and dedication in the Jewish community, inspired by Phyllis G. Margolius. It honors impactful contributions that advance our communal and cultural fabric. For me, it validates nearly three decades of efforts, emphasizing the path we’ve pursued at Maryland Hillel to create a nurturing, inclusive community. This accolade symbolizes the legacy and innovative spirit we aim to uphold
and spread.

Under your leadership, how has Maryland Hillel evolved to meet the needs of today’s students?

We’ve seen tremendous growth in facilities and programming to accommodate an increasingly diverse student body. Our budget has tripled, enabling a richer variety of programs encompassing cultural, religious and social activities tailored to enhance student life. We have also expanded our staff, integrating fresh perspectives and expertise. A major milestone is our new building, which will hopefully open soon and be a hub for Jewish life and learning on campus.

What initiatives have been most impactful under your leadership?

Several initiatives have notably deepened Jewish identity among our students. We’ve bolstered Jewish Studies support, introduced innovative community service programs and expanded cultural and spiritual events to align with modern student interests. Our enhanced campus presence through partnerships with various university departments has also significantly contributed to our community’s integration with the wider
university life.

How have you navigated complex issues like antisemitism and cultural diversity on campus?

Navigating these issues requires engagement and education. We combat antisemitism and foster cultural diversity through workshops, speaker series and building alliances across campus groups. This proactive approach cultivates an environment of inclusivity and respect, ensuring that all students feel safe and valued. We are dedicated to creating a campus culture that celebrates diversity and combats prejudice.

Can you provide details about the activities and programs Maryland Hillel offers to engage Jewish students on campus?

Maryland Hillel offers a diverse array of programs that aim to engage Jewish students in both religious and cultural activities. Initiatives include multiple Jewish a cappella groups and a range of pro-Israel communities, which have grown substantially under the current leadership. The community also engages in frequent prayer services and has established an eruv to enhance Jewish life on campus and allow observant students to carry on Shabbat. These programs are designed to support students’ religious practices while also fostering a vibrant community atmosphere.

What measures does Maryland Hillel take to support the broader Jewish community’s connection to Israel, especially under current geopolitical tensions?

Maryland Hillel actively promotes a connection to Israel through educational trips and cultural exchanges. For example, it sends over 400 students to Israel annually through programs like Birthright Israel and Onward Israel. These initiatives are integral to Maryland Hillel’s strategy to foster a deep, personal connection between students and the Israeli landscape and culture, which reinforces their Jewish identity in a global context.

Additionally, in response to current geopolitical tensions and their challenges, Maryland Hillel has maintained its commitment to these programs, adapting as needed to ensure that students can still participate in these transformative experiences. The organization also engages in dialogue on campus about Israel, providing a nuanced perspective that includes the complexities of Israeli politics and society. This balanced approach helps educate the student body and campus community, fostering a comprehensive understanding and support for Israel amid a challenging international climate.

Could you discuss the impact of Maryland Hillel’s initiatives on Jewish students’ personal and religious growth?
Maryland Hillel significantly influences Jewish students’ personal and religious growth by providing opportunities that align with their educational and spiritual journeys. Programs designed to parallel university degrees in various fields help ensure Jewish learning is a core component of students’ college experience. Maryland Hillel’s environment encourages students to explore and deepen their Jewish identities, facilitated by a dynamic community that adapts to their evolving needs.

Can you share a story that highlights the impact of your work?

During the fall semester of the pandemic, our community faced an unexpected challenge when intense rainfall led to significant flooding throughout our building. The drains quickly became overwhelmed, and water started seeping into the building, risking damage to the structure and areas housed within. Students and staff sprang into action, using whatever tools available — buckets, mops and towels — to control the water and save key areas. Their rapid response averted severe damage and highlighted the strong community spirit and collective responsibility that define our Hillel. This incident not only tested but ultimately strengthened the bonds within our community, showing the resilience and proactive nature of our students and staff in times of crisis.

If you could convey a message widely, what would it be?

I would say, ‘Hillel: Not just where you go, but who you can become.’ This reflects our mission to make the Hillel experience a transformative journey of personal and communal growth. We provide tools and opportunities for students to explore their heritage and identities in a supportive, dynamic environment, shaping them into thoughtful, engaged citizens. We are committed to nurturing this vibrant community and inspiring future Jewish leaders. At Maryland Hillel, we believe in the transformative power of an engaged, educated student body and the importance of community in shaping future generations.

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