New U.C. Davis Hillel head thrives on impassioned debate

There's nothing more gratifying than a good argument, according to the new director of the U.C. Davis Hillel. Or perhaps more Jewish.

In fact, Rabbi Kenny Kaufman, formerly of the Vancouver Hillel, looks forward to vigorous discussions at the campus known better for languid cows than passionate debate.

"I love arguing but I don't know if I can get others to love it or not," said Kaufman, 43, who replaces Marsha Plafkin after she resigned to attend rabbinical school.

The new director contends that even a heated exchange can be a learning tool. Canadians, he sighs, were too good-natured for debate. But the former Angeleno knows he can rely on Californians to find something to disagree about.

Kaufman may have to craft the argument of his life to win notice from the less-active Jewish students in Davis.

No one really knows how many Aggies are Jewish. Estimates suggest about 2,300, though their involvement with Hillel has been less to brag about, he said.

"There may be a rebuilding process. There's been a lot of turnover of [Hillel] staff and variations over the years as to how much students express their Jewish involvement through Hillel."

While there aren't any Jewish groups at U.C. Davis other than those affiliated with Hillel, Kaufman suspects some students seek Jewish life off campus. He aims to include students from neighboring colleges and universities in the Sacramento area.

"We're on the edge of really growing," said Davida Feder, president of the U.C. Davis Hillel board. "[Kaufman] has increased programming at other universities. We're looking forward to the same kind of building here."

Kaufman hesitates to announce new programs before consulting with students. Still, he hopes to include a couple of favorites: community service and recreation.

He fondly recalls Shabbat camping trips, where propane lanterns were left to burn themselves out as students kibitzed into the darker hours of the night.

Of all the age groups he has worked with, Kaufman finds college students the most stimulating.

"There's a certain dynamic where people are questioning, challenging and searching. There's a certain skepticism that makes for a great opportunity for an exchange of ideas."

Despite his love for debate, Kaufman frowns upon division within the Jewish community.

"It's one thing to have different interests, but it's another thing to actually oppose each other."

With that in mind, Kaufman refuses to be identified with a particular movement. He was ordained privately by a Jerusalem rabbi.

During his Los Angeles days, he organized a social-educational group out of his own apartment called Kulanu (all of us) to remedy a schism in the congregation that he belonged to. A group of congregants who felt that their interests were not met by the synagogue had left to form a synagogue of their own.

In Kulanu, Kaufman hosted weekly discussion groups led by Jewish thinkers, musicians and religious figures. His living room became a neutral meeting place for his fellow congregants and the break-away congregants. Kulanu ultimately failed to repair the rift between the groups, but it gained a following in the larger Jewish community and lasted for 12 years.

Kaufman comes to Davis with his wife, Deborah, their 4-year-old daughter, Chava, and three stepdaughters. He will spend the weeks before fall term consulting with student leaders and planning student programs.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.