New Hillel director honors mom’s memory at Santa Cruz

While working for Hillel at U.C. Santa Barbara a few years ago, Sarah Cohen Domont got to know one student who needed to blow off steam.

“She told me, ‘I wish there was a day I could not be responding to emails all the time,’ ” Domont said. “I told her we have that day. It’s called Shabbat. I helped her craft an outgoing message saying she would not be returning emails on Shabbat.”

Sarah Cohen Domont

That “we’re here to help” attitude served Domont well for two years in Santa Barbara and three more as associate director of Hillel of North Carolina, where she served 15 campuses across the state. Domont, 36, has just returned to her native California to begin her tenure as executive director of Santa Cruz Hillel.

She will reach out to Jewish students at U.C. Santa Cruz, as well as at Cabrillo College and Cal State Monterey Bay. Domont hopes to have a positive impact in Northern California, much as she did in the Tar Heel State.

“I have an opportunity to shape the organization and how it interacts with other stakeholders,” she said. “One area we can grow is meeting students where they are, and having increased services on campus, such as Shabbat dinners.”

Currently, the Hillel house in Santa Cruz holds Shabbat dinners during the school year, but the facility is located several miles from campus.

Though newly arrived, Domont says she already has detected from students a deep concern for environmental sustainability and social justice, both personal passions of hers as well.

Most important to her is developing relationships with students to “help them take charge of their Jewish identity as it emerges,” she says. That is what Hillel did for her when she was a student at San Francisco State University.

Born in Orange County, Domont grew up in a Conservative shul but moved to Ventura where she had her bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue. “From that I realized there is value in each denomination in Judaism, which makes Hillel so wonderful because it welcomes all Jewish students,” she said.

The sudden death of her mother while Domont attended college devastated her, but she found solace at Hillel. “I could not have gone through it without the support of Hillel,” she recalled. “Anything I do now is to serve her memory.”

Domont became a social worker, helping the homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and single mothers in Seattle. But she decided to change careers. She earned an MBA in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. From there, she became Santa Barbara Hillel’s director of student life.

She learned quickly that the job requires more than setting a nice Shabbat table. Sometimes it involves something akin to pastoral counseling.

“I had a student whose father had died,” Domont recalled. “I was able to connect with her. She said, ‘Sarah, when does it gets better?’ I said, ‘It never gets better, it just changes. Grief is a roller coaster.’ ”

Domont is married and has two young children. As much as she enjoyed life in North Carolina, she says she is glad to be back in her home state.

“There’s something about California,” she says. “The air is special here, besides the smog. The salt-kissed air, the sun — there’s nothing like it in the world, and Santa Cruz may be the most beautiful city in the world.”

Just as beautiful to her are the Jewish values that guide Hillel on college campuses everywhere, including in her neck of the redwoods. Said Domont, “I truly feel if everybody navigated life with these values, this world would be such a better place.”

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.