Santa Cruz Hillel head sees Judaism as celebration of life

As the new executive director of Santa Cruz Hillel Foundation, Shalom Bochner says he doesn't want to just tell students, "Here's a book. Now sit down and pray."

Bochner, whose job began on July 1, has already organized a retreat in a local redwood forest. He plans an alternative film festival and a speaker series during the school year. He also wants to reach out to other students besides those at U.C. Santa Cruz, namely those at nearby Cabrillo College.

The new director received a bachelor's degree in sociology and Judaic studies at the State University of New York in Albany, where he also grew up. He then got a master's degree in education at the College of St. Rose, also in Albany.

After five years directing a summer camp in upstate New York, Bochner feels he's now equipped to build a growing spiritual community on the California coast. His goal in Santa Cruz is to draw into the community a socially aware student population.

"People choose Santa Cruz deliberately," Bochner says. "It has a very liberal orientation — social justice and deeply spiritual things."

Merging the social with the religious is his goal, although it's not a new one for Hillel. Last year, for example, it held a reggae Havdallah. Bochner simply wants to expand that vision. He wants to focus on teaching "that Judaism is a celebration of life, not just weighty responsibilities."

He's discovered that Santa Cruz students know what Judaism can do for them, including meditation classes. What they don't know is what Judaism is all about, the culture and the philosophy.

"They need to know everything that we do that's Jewish," says Bochner.

He wants, for example, to appeal to the environmentally focused student population. He says that many people come to Santa Cruz because of its surroundings. But that once they get there, they are not aware of what is around them. He wants to create a link between Judaism and the environment.

"I am proud of the good surfing and vegetarianism," Bochner says, "but I know that there can be more than that."

Bochner also wants to make it clear that he doesn't want to isolate Jews who may not have the same political agenda that he does.

"I don't know if there is a Republican Jewish student group," he says with a laugh. "But if there is, I would like to welcome them."

Bochner says he has already seen an increase in involvement with up to 80 attending Shabbat services each week. He says, out of a U.C. Santa Cruz Jewish population of 2,000, about 200 are involved in the organization.

"I would like to say I want to get all 2,000 to come but that's not going to happen," he says.

That would have been an unrealistic goal a decade ago.

"The Jewish population of the school has grown significantly in the past eight years," says Paul Cohen, placing the number at "between 10 and 20 percent" of the student enrollment.

But Cohen, who is Hillel's senior consultant in the campus strategic services department, says the surge in the Jewish population within the student community doesn't correspond with the number of Jews within the surrounding area. And that presents a challenge.

"All Hillels need to raise a significant portion of their annual budget during the year," says Cohen, "and although the Santa Cruz Jewish student population is such a high percentage of the total campus, the surrounding Jewish community is small, and fund-raising has consistently been a challenge."

The past school year was no exception.

"Last year's shortfall in fund-raising resulted in staff positions ending during mid- to late spring," says Cohen. "Staffing was maintained through additional allocations of funds from both Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation."

After some restructuring and the developing of a "more realistic financial plan" the Santa Cruz Hillel Foundation board recruited Bochner.

Bochner succeeds Lorin Troderman, a long-term director who "had really developed programming," says Cohen, and found a location for the Hillel office and program space across from campus, "but chose to resign at the end of December."

Turnover is not uncommon, adds Cohen. Hillel directors routinely earn low salaries and funding is frequently hard to come by.

Hillels raise money in two primary ways: "letters to former donors and alumni during holiday periods and individual solicitations," he says.

Bochner and his partner, Orli Loewenberg, have lived in Santa Cruz for six years. In June they led 35 U.C. Santa Cruz students on a 10-day Birthright Israel trip, a program that has sent 17,000 young Jews on free trips to the Holy Land. The couple now invites students to their home for Shabbat dinners.

Bochner also hopes to get his Jewish rock band back together again, and he's studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, estimating that he will finish his studies in three or four years. But his immediate focus is Hillel.

"Jewishly, it's having it's own renaissance," he says.