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Lunch with Mimi: Aaron Kaufman Leads Penn State Hillel in Helping Students Connect to Jewish Life

by on December 02, 2019 5:00 AM

Aaron Kaufman has spent his entire career with Hillel, first as the director at the Eastern Michigan University Hillel, and then as the associate director at the Cornell Hillel before becoming the executive director of Penn State Hillel in 2007. In this role, he is responsible for the overall strategic direction and vision for Penn State Hillel, including the development of its new building.

Kaufman oversees budgeting and fiscal management of Penn State Hillel as well as coordinating fundraising for its annual and capital endowment campaigns. With a team of dedicated staff, he works with student leadership and partners with various stakeholders, including the Board of Directors, Hillel International, Penn State, nearby Jewish Federations, and parents.

Kaufman was born and raised in Okemos, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, graduating in 1999 with majors in Judaic studies, cultural anthropology, and studies in religion. He met his wife, Stephanie Herzberg, at Hillel during his freshman year in college; they have been together for almost 24 years, married for 18 years.

Kaufman earned a master’s degree in social work in 2001 from the University of Michigan and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from Eastern Michigan University.

Since 2007, under Kaufman’s leadership, Penn State Hillel has received numerous awards including Penn State’s Outstanding Student Organization of the Year (twice), Spiritual Leadership (three times), Hillel International’s Campus of Excellence, Great Place to Work, and Strengthening the Global Hillel Movement. Kaufman has also received Hillel International’s Exemplar of Excellence Award.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Kaufman at the Tavern Restaurant to discuss Penn State Hillel’s unique approach to building its new space in downtown State College, what makes the organization special, and how it is impacting Hillel nationally.


Mimi: Well, Aaron, great to have you here. I couldn't help but reminisce about when I came to Penn State. The Hillel was located above Temple Market on Beaver Avenue. From there, it ended up on Locust Lane, and then on campus, where it is at the present. And now Hillel is coming back downtown. How did that happen?

Aaron: First, I think it's important to note that we're not moving off campus, we are expanding our footprint. We're still going to maintain our space in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. We're going to turn it into a lounge space for students as well as staff meeting rooms in what are currently our small offices. We don't own the space as a university building, but we do have an agreement with the university to utilize those four offices. We are very excited about our new home downtown. I was hired 12 years ago, and at that point, our organization had already been looking for space.

Mimi: How did you acquire that very valuable space?

Aaron: The lot off the corner of Beaver and Garner used to be the Citizens Bank branch. A member of our Board of Directors, Elliott Weinstein, brought a tax map to my office one day and we looked at everything in downtown State College that was independently owned, not by one of the families that own a lot of real estate, and we identified that site. We quite literally called the bank and it took a little while with some help when we needed it, but we were able to over about a year and a half negotiate that sale and acquire that piece of land.

Mimi: And now it's become a part of the whole development by the Friedmans.

Aaron: We found alignment with the Friedman family to create this really exciting project. Our piece of it was to sell our land to the developer as part of that project.

Mimi: How did you end up with space?

Aaron: We sold our land for two things. One is the shell of the space for the new Hillel building, which was just under 18,000 square feet in its total footprint. We will end up with slightly more than 15,000 square feet of finished Hillel space, two floors right on the corner of Beaver and Garner and extending along Beaver, wrapping around Hiester Street. And the deal supported both construction of the Hillel as well as the funds to finish, pretty much to specifications for us. We'll have some contributions of our own resources for furniture, fixtures, equipment, and security needs.

Mimi: Do you have all that money raised?

Aaron: We do.

Mimi: So, you're going in debt-free?

Aaron: Not only are we going in debt-free, but whenever a nonprofit builds a new building, they endeavor to name the space, the building, the rooms, and lounges. We're going to do the same, with one very notable exception. Instead of those funds that we raise going forward to be used to construct the building itself, because we've already got the building paid for by the deal, those funds will go to create a long-term endowment to support Jewish life forever.

Mimi: So, you're guaranteed the maintenance of the building into perpetuity.

Aaron: Correct.

Mimi: That's pretty smart in an age when religion appears to be in the process of declining, in terms of participation for all things.

Aaron: I've heard those statistics. Thankfully, we have not seen that to be the case for the Jewish students at Penn State; quite the opposite.

Mimi: But it’s not that they're more religious than other people. It's really the programming.

Aaron: It's the engagement. Programs are a tool, but not the end goal, just like the building we're constructing is a tool to support Jewish life. The end goal is for Jewish students at Penn State to find ways to connect to their heritage, the traditions, and then to commit to including those values in their lives going forward. For them to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life is at the root of our vision.

Mimi: So, a lot of Jewish couples meet at Hillel?

Aaron: I hear that is the case. It has not been a focal point of our programming. We don't tell people who to marry, just like we don't tell them what to think about keeping kosher or anything else. We try to show the beauty and the variety of opportunity for connection and meaning in Judaism and help them find a home.

Mimi: I've known a number of the devoted student leaders and they feel like very special young people. They have a greater interest in others than in themselves, it seems to me.

Aaron: When I got here 12 years ago, I saw very clearly that this place could become the best place to be Jewish in America on any college campus. We had incredible students, but we were not engaging in the right ways. I knew those students could really affect change for the Jewish community on campus. And we've since made a huge difference.

Mimi: Could you describe what you did?

Aaron: I think it boils down to two things. One is an understanding that this had to be the best place to work in the Jewish world and that we would never be successful unless we had the best talent, professionally. And the second is that student leaders needed to be our partners, not just in programming, but in leadership, development, and organizational change. So, our students have access to anything in our organization. We have students on our board of directors; students comprise the majority of every hiring committee we put together. We're very transparent in that way, both with our staff and with our students.

Students are the ones that create Jewish life on campus. My job, and our staff’s role, is to help guide and support them. We find the resources, the training, remove the barriers to their success, a basic servant-leadership approach. So, students do the programming, and make the decisions about the kinds of opportunities that happen. Students are involved when we find a rabbi to lead our holiday services. When someone suggests bringing a speaker to campus, the students are the ones who say yes or no, not me. And it's been that way since my first year.

Mimi: I'm impressed with the fact that this chapter has been recognized by Hillel International and by the university. What's the secret to your success?

Aaron: Great question. The secret to my success is that it's not about me. It's not about me leading a rally or standing up and giving a speech. It's never about me; it's about our students. So, at the high holidays, the first person people see up on the Bimah at the beginning of services is a student leader welcoming everyone or it's another member of the staff. I'll say a minimum of three minutes and a maximum of four minutes of words, every now and then, at a high holiday service.

Mimi: You have a lot of self-confidence. And yet, you don't force yourself on anyone. How'd you get that way?

Aaron: It's just my way. My goal, and what I love most about the work that I get to do on a daily basis, is my job is almost entirely about helping other people figure out what they're capable of achieving and achieve it.

Mimi: I smell in you the part of me that I realized with age, that the happiest part of my life is when I help other people achieve personal satisfaction. What is the most difficult problem you've been confronted with in these 12 years?

Aaron: Time. The hardest part is probably balance, which is always fleeting. Annie Dillard wrote the book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The whole concept was trying to live in the present and ultimately, the moment you realize you're living in the present, you're reflecting on it and not living in the present anymore. The reason I flashed to that is, balance is fleeting, of course. I don't ever live there in the long-term, but the work that I have chosen to do is highly consuming and time-involved. And I have three wonderful kids and a wife. And the hardest part has been finding the right balance in my personal and professional life. I'm sure there are choices that I've made that have led Hillel to grow a little slower than it could have otherwise, because I won't miss birthdays and school events. It's very rare that I miss something like that. I'm sure I'm not nearly as good as I could be.

Mimi: What gives you the greatest satisfaction in the work you do?

Aaron: Two things come to mind. One is the progress and growth the organization has made over time. And the other is all the people that had a hand in that.

Mimi: Well, it's gotta give you the chills thinking about this new place under very good circumstances, and with a solid view for the future. It's not easy to position yourself in that kind of way.

Aaron: I firmly believe that once this building is up, we've completed our campaign, and we've raised the $12 million-plus excellence fund, that we will become a model for other Hillels and Jewish nonprofits to take the concept of our real estate project on the road. There are a couple of pieces at play. One is simply the mechanics of real estate leverage. But we very purposefully targeted 15,000 square feet based on some data and research that we did around the performance of Hillels and the size of their space.

Mimi: Plus, habits of young people.

Aaron: Right. We did some focus groups in New York City with experiential marketers and others who target Gen Z for their work professionally, to talk through the habits of young Jewish people today because Millennials are no longer our students. They’re now the workforce. The nature of affiliation or lack thereof of young people today matters. And so, we needed to design a space that enables us to reach our goal. We reach over 2,000 Jewish students every year, and we have for a couple of years now, without our own space.

Mimi: How many Jewish students are there?

Aaron: We estimate 4,000 to 5,000. There's no great way to know an exact number really anywhere, but that's our best estimate, which puts us at top 10 or 12 nationally.

Mimi: Well, I think the model that you created has a sense of longevity in an area where things are really changing.

Aaron: Also, the nature of philanthropy in America. Studies are now coming out that the tax law changes last year reduced charitable giving to nonprofits in America. We're at the mercy of recessions and all kinds of factors that are outside of our control. And so, if we're able to build a sustainable fund that can support our operations at a certain level for the long-term, then we are less at risk organizationally. We're diversified in our funding.

Mimi: What haven’t I asked you that I should?

Aaron: One thing I'm particularly proud of is that we become a generator of Jewish leadership. We are empirically one of the best places to work in the Hillel world. There are 150 or so Hillels that have professional staff. Each year, Hillel International does its empirical research on employee engagement and empowerment; we typically have the top or close to the top marks.

We’ve become an incredible place to work. In the time that I've been here and based just on the numbers, we have placed over 100 graduates from Penn State into Jewish professional roles, long-term programs in Israel, and advanced Jewish degrees. Penn State has become a model, a place to start your Jewish career, either as a student or as a young professional. Our retention rate in terms of people who take other Jewish jobs after they leave is far higher than most other Hillels.

Mimi: So again, what's your secret weapon?

Aaron: We hire great people; we have great processes for selection. We hire people who really do well in their roles, by and large. We have an incredible sense of team and support that enables people to – and I'm not just talking about staff, but also our students – really grow and flourish as who they can become. Lots of our student leaders who don't go into Jewish roles after they graduate are at major corporations like Goldman Sachs and other places. And I've heard from students who managed restaurants, students on Wall Street, and others who say, almost word for word, “I wouldn't have gotten this job without being a leader at Hillel.”

Mimi: Well, that's quite a recommendation. Eating is a very important part of being Jewish and you have this program of Friday night dinners that are open to everybody. Do a lot of people come in that aren't Jewish?

Aaron: Participation with dinners at Hillel varies week to week, depending on who's involved. There are weeks where, if someone’s made a connection, we’ll have a group of students from the Muslim Student Association show up. We do a Pride Shabbat every year. A couple of years ago, we had a student who had just come out as a member of the LGBT community and her entire intramural sports team came to dinner that night to support her, which was amazing to see.

One of the things we do now with increasing success is we help students host their own Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders, Rosh Hashanah meals, and any other Jewish events. Our program is called JewPAC, the Jewish Programming Allocation Committee. We modeled it after UPAC, which is the University Park Allocation Committee. Twenty-thousand dollars in our budget every year is set aside specifically for our student leaders to determine both who gets what and also the parameters for funding. Part of that money goes to any individual student on campus to apply to do something Jewish, in their own networks on campus. The concept is to be powered by Hillel, not hosted by Hillel.

And then the other part is for the Jewish groups that we support to enable those groups, whether it's our Israel club, or our community service club, or our health and wellness group, to create programming for the year. One of the core functions of our student board is JewPAC. Spreading the word about it, reviewing the applications, setting the guidelines for what will and won't be funded, and then making the distributions. So, when I said it's not about us, our students are the ones spending that $20,000.

Mimi: How many grants do you give in a year?

Aaron: We're in the hundreds. And this reaches thousands of students over the last number of years. It doesn't just spread Jewish life in the networks Hillel doesn't typically reach on its own, it also helps people create a sense of empowerment and ownership over Jewish life they can take with them, their families, spouses, and living life going forward. It also creates a circle of investors and teaches students about philanthropy.

Mimi: You're blessed. Thank you for sharing lots of philosophy and keep up the great work.

Aaron: Thanks, Mimi. Thank you so much for doing this.


Town & Gown is a monthly publication in State College, PA. If it's happening in Happy Valley, it's in Town & Gown.
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