New head of Berkeley Hillel has family legacy in East Bay

Good news, Berkeley. Rabbi Kelman is back in business.

No, not Rabbi Stuart Kelman, the former senior rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom — he’s happily enjoying retirement. But his son-in-law, Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, is the new executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

Naftalin-Kelman comes to the East Bay after having served in a similar post at the University of Colorado in Boulder for the last three years. Swapping the thin Rocky Mountain air for the hyper-political atmosphere of Berkeley is a big step for Naftalin-Kelman, 34, but one he looks forward to.

“The caliber of the students, their level of involvement, and being at one of the premier institutions in the country was an opportunity that seemed difficult to pass up,” he says.

Naftalin-Kelman hopes to make Berkeley Hillel a place for Jewish college students to “explore and experiment with their Jewish identity” through a variety of Jewish educational opp-ortunities, holiday programs and other initiatives.

Before he gets to all that, though, he says his first priority is to head for Caffe Strada.

“For me the first steps are having coffee,” he says. “Meeting people, finding out what students want, and not with any agenda. In terms of navigating the climate on campus, what I’d like to do is reach out to students, faculty and community members.”

He already knows the U.C. Berkeley campus has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel activism. Exhibit A: Earlier this year, pro-Israel Jewish student John Moghtader was recalled as a senator after being accused of assaulting a Palestinian student at a campus concert last fall. A video taken during the fracas later proved he was innocent.

So how does Hillel help Jewish students proudly celebrate Judaism and Israel in a climate that in the past has been less than friendly to those sentiments?

“I’m a perpetual optimist,” Naftalin-Kelman says. “Like any group, [pro-Israel Jews] should feel comfortable on this campus being vocal about who they are. I am a collaborator and community-builder by nature.”

That nature may be due to the nurture he received growing up in a “warm and loving Jewish environment” in Encino, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. For him, Judaism was always “a very positive experience. I never rebelled against it. I had great experiences all my life, and when you pile them up you make decisions for what you want to do.”

Though he studied accounting and computer science, a junior year abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem  helped seal the deal as far as pursuing the rabbinate. After working in the accounting world for a time, he enrolled at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. His first post upon ordination was at the Boulder Hillel, serving the campus’ 2,000 Jewish students.

When the opportunity to come to Berkeley opened up, he jumped at the chance. His wife, Elana, is the daughter of Rabbi Stuart Kelman, and with the couple’s two young children, coming home to California and family seemed like the right move. His wife currently runs the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Ojai, which provides a Jewish summer camp experience for special-needs kids.

Now ensconced at the Berkeley Hillel at the top of Bancroft Avenue, Naftalin-Kelman is ready for the fall semester — and all the action — to begin.

“Students crave one-on-one attention,” he says. “I get high from the interaction with the students, and I love what I do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.