Alumnus to fill in for absent Berkeley Hillel director

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While no one is really sure how much of U.C. Berkeley's student body is Jewish, at least 2,000 students march through the doors of Hillel in the course of a school year.

But as many as 3,000 other Jewish students never seek out Hillel, said Adam Weisberg, Berkeley Hillel's interim director until Rabbi Rona Shapiro, the permanent director, returns from her 1997-98 sabbatical.

"It's difficult competing with other interest groups and activities on an active campus," admitted Weisberg, 34.

"The [threat] to Jewish continuity is that there is something lacking in Jewish life and young Jews don't feel compelled to be involved."

Indeed, according to Jewish federation estimates, as many as 75 percent of the students who identify themselves as Jewish when they enroll no longer do by the time they graduate.

A former Bear himself, Weisberg is dedicated to luring students with compelling programs. The trick, he says, is to develop them together with students.

Staff-student collaborations in the past have produced a popular social justice program and a multicultural group of Jewish, African-American, Asian and Latino students who helped rebuild a burned-out Baptist church in Alabama last winter.

Weisberg is excited about developing other such programs, but he hesitates to chart a course until he finds out which way Berkeley's winds are blowing.

Still, he bubbles about exploring environmental ethics, a favorite topic, and hopes that students share his enthusiasm.

"In rabbinic thinking, there are three primary relationships: between the person and the self, the person and others and the person and the environment," he explains.

"If the environment is one of your starting places as to how you live in the world as a Jew, then that is profound."

The new director has been active in environmental and social causes in his work and throughout his college years, both as an English major at U.C. Berkeley as well as a graduate student of social work at Columbia and of Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. After completing two master's degrees and several years of professional work, he studied classical Jewish text at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem last year.

Though he insists it was never planned, Weisberg has made a career of serving the Jewish community. Seven summers as a Camp Tawonga counselor in his youth probably had something to do with it.

He has worked in Israel as a program coordinator with the volunteer organization Otzma, as a Jewish studies teacher for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Bulgaria, and as associate director of Hillel at Ohio State University in Columbus. Most recently, he was director of Teva, a Jewish environmental education program in Connecticut.

With Shapiro's departure, there is no rabbi at Hillel's helm to lead services, so all Shabbat and holiday observances this year will be student-led. Shapiro will return to lead High Holy Day services in October.

Weisberg maintains that Shapiro's staff of four and returning students will help him preserve ongoing programs.

The interim director has no plans for what comes after his tenure is finished. For now, he's content to be haunting his old digs in the Bay Area after an 11-year absence. He happily relocated to Berkeley with his wife, Rachel Brodie, who now teaches at Berkeley's Lehrhaus Judaica, the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and Elderhostel.

"I'm a strong believer in fate," Weisberg said. "This year will be part of the process of finding the next step."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.