Aaron Weil, executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center, will leave that position this summer to head up a fast-growing Hillel at the second largest university in the nation.
He has been named the new Hillel director at the University of Central Florida in Orlando — a school with 58,000 students, 6,000 of whom are Jewish undergraduates. The Hillel also serves 500 undergrads from nearby Rollins College.
By comparison, Hillel JUC serves 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 20-something professionals.
To make his new job even more enticing, a new Hillel center is under construction at UCF. It’s part of a state-of-the-art, 600-bed dormitory, where one-third of the occupants are expected to be Jewish when it opens in August.
The capper is that the benefactor behind the dormitory project financed it on condition that 50 percent of net revenue over the next 60 years would go to Hillel. That’s the equivalent of approximately $350,000 per year or a $7 million endowment.
“Imagine a state-of-the art Hillel — one of the first to be built in the 21st century — with no debt and the equivalent of a $7 million endowment to serve 6,500 Jewish undergraduate students,” Weil said, “and you get an idea of the potential for what can be built. … They’re going to build a Hillel unlike anything that’s ever been built before.”
Weil, 47, leaves after 10 years at Hillel JUC — a strong period of stability for the student organization considering he was its fourth director in six years when he took the job.
Over the years he developed a series of programming and networks that strengthened campus Jewish life.
Some of the better-known achievements include J-Burgh, which seeks to keep 20-something Jews connected to Pittsburgh Jewish life once they graduate; “Campus Superstar,” an “American Idol”-like contest, which has become a significant source of funding for Hillel JUC; the introduction of kosher meal options at CMU and Pitt; the establishment of a Jewish fraternity at Duquesne University — Alpha Epsilon Pi — and a partnership with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation to help young Jews develop leadership skills.
His biggest struggle, he said, was managing the agency’s finances.
“We grew very fast, very quickly,” Weil said. “Sustaining that has been a real challenge. Looking back on it, I would probably do it differently, but gong to Orlando I will learn from the mistakes I made here.”
Indeed, Hillel JUC has grown rapidly. It served 2,500 students on a $475,000 budget with a staff of four when Weil arrived in 2003. Today, it serves 5,000 students on a $1.2 million dollar budget with a staff of 10. Its endowment also has grown, from $300,000 to $3 million dollars.
In 2007, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette rated Hillel JUC as one of “Pittsburgh’s Great Places to Work.”
More importantly, the agency won Hillel International’s highest honor in 2011: the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award.
“Aaron’s vision and creativity and his entrepreneurial zeal hugely benefitted the Hillel JUC,” said David Kalson, outgoing chair of the Hillel JUC Board, “and we’re a very different agency — a very different organization — than we were 10 years ago when Aaron arrived.”
Weil didn’t just happen upon the UCF position. He has been consulting on the project for well over a year and drafted the job description for the position he will assume this summer. In fact, when he left Israel 10 years ago, the Florida native applied for two Hillel jobs — one in Pittsburgh and one at UCF.
As Weil winds down his time in Pittsburgh, Hillel JUC is undertaking an “international search” for his successor, he said. Zack Block, chair of the board’s governance committee, will lead the search committee.
“We are already beginning the process, and we look forward to the process and finding the right leader for the Hillel JUC,” Kalson said. “We think the Pittsburgh Jewish community — the dynamic CMU-Pitt [community] and other colleges campuses — present an unparalleled opportunity.
“We want someone ready by July 1,” Kalson added, “but we are going to go through a very thorough process, and we’re not going to push for the sake of getting someone in sooner rather than later.”
Who is hired should be prepared to run an agency unlike most Hillel houses, Weil said.
“When you’re the executive director of the Hillel JUC you’re not the director of a Hillel, you’re the director of an agency of the Pittsburgh Jewish community,” he said. “The other difference is in the new economy Pittsburgh created, which is based on the universities and medical center. Hillel is the only agency in the Jewish community that works directly with the largest employer of the Jewish community. … We’re the gateway to, not only where the Jews are working, but where the young adults moving to Pittsburgh are coming.”
Weil, his wife Sharon, their daughters Noa and Roni, and son Nadav, have become enmeshed in the Jewish community here, he said. Their kids have attended Community Day School.
“Leaving Pittsburgh is not something that we have decided upon easily,” he wrote in a community letter announcing his departure, “but, as colleagues have advised me over the years, in this field, one has to be willing to relocate in order to advance and the fact that I have been able to have the honor and privilege of leading this agency for a decade is extraordinary indeed.”
He noted wryly to the Chronicle that he left Israel 10 years ago for the Diaspora, and he is now leaving Pittsburgh for yet another Diaspora.
The name of that Diaspora? “Steeler Nation,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)