By Matt Baram
“There’s a dead cat in our Hillel building. Mom, what do I do?”
“Matt, you’re going to have to get it out of there.”
Yep, pretty much from the start, my first year as an Executive Director was determined to test my skills, my will, and my sanity. For most people, words like theft, squatters, cancer, swastikas, murder, pandemic, and dead cats reads like a list of scenes from a horror movie. For me, these were real moments from my inaugural year as Executive Director of Hillel 818. Serving the 6,500 undergraduate Jewish students at California State Northridge (CSUN), Pierce College, and Valley College has already proven to be the professional highlight of my life and the toughest challenge I’ve ever faced. Here’s what I’ve learned:
We discovered a homeless woman was living at our construction site. When I arrived, she wasn’t there. So I left a note saying she had 24 hours to vacate the premises. Immediately, I felt terrible. Homelessness is an epidemic in Los Angeles, and instead of helping the situation, I told this woman to take her problems elsewhere. I decided I should bring her information about available community resources the next morning. But when I awoke, I discovered a voicemail from an unknown number. It was the homeless woman. I tensed up and prepared for the worst. And then, she thanked me. By giving her a full 24 hours to relocate she was able to figure out where to go next. I sat in stunned silence. I had expected a justified anger, and instead was met with sincere gratitude. She reminded me that sparks of gratitude can show up anywhere, often from unexpected sources and even through hardship.
Have a Dog in the Fight
Five minutes into my first big donor event at her house, my board member’s dog took a big chomp out of my thigh! One inch in the other direction and I would’ve been in the hospital. Despite the pain, the wound appeared manageable. So I grit my teeth, applied some Neosporin, snuck the occasional glance to ensure there was no blood, and walked away with a $15,000 donation from a new donor!
Analyze All Angles
When we moved to our temporary location during our renovation we left several items behind. When we went to retrieve them, I needed to maneuver the U-Haul truck through our narrow driveway. I nervously creeped forward before looking to reassess my positioning. Amazingly, the truck was perfectly centered. I tried to back in further but the U-Haul wouldn’t budge. Turns out, I had forgotten to consider the height of the truck. Now, our renovated building will have brand new gutters!
The Power of Community
In September, our community suffered an immeasurable loss when Mikey Lertzman, a member of CSUN AEPi, was murdered. Almost immediately, Hillel International helped me strategize who to call, what statement to craft, and how to respond to media inquiries. I was connected to professionals who had dealt with similar tragedies. The Los Angeles Jewish Federation identified therapists to provide counseling for students. Hillel 818’s OU-JLIC Rabbi Bryan Borenstein spent the entire day consoling students. I received messages from every partner organization and colleague imaginable. That day was both the longest of my professional life and when I came to truly appreciate the power of a movement. Dealing with tragedy felt impossible, but I never felt like I had to do it alone.
Revel in the Dirty Work
Working at Sinai Temple for eight years, I was spoiled by their full-time maintenance staff. At Hillel 818, our cleaning crew only works weekends and we are responsible for everything from washing the dishes to hanging up our new whiteboards. So when I found a dead cat in our building, I knew my mom was right – I would be the one to remove it. Dirty work isn’t always fun, but it definitely heightens your sense of ownership and investment in your work.
Fighting Hate is a Team Sport
In October, a CSUN bathroom stall was found covered in hateful graffiti including a swastika.
CSUN is renowned for its diversity, and so is Hillel 818 – our Jewish population consists of large numbers of Persian, Russian, and Israeli-American Jews. But like all communities, we must reckon with prejudice, hate, and systemic oppression. It’s why I’m proud to serve on CSUN’s Commission on Inclusion and Diversity. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, it’s clear that eliminating hate and fighting for racial justice must be a team effort. We’re fortunate to partner with a campus that provides the Jewish community a seat at the table.
Lift Yourself by Lifting Others
A few months after having a tumor removed, our Associate Director Evan Taksar Levental shared her battle with cancer with 1,100 colleagues at Hillel International’s General Assembly. She recalled being diagnosed just after starting a new job and right before her wedding. She discussed her weekly chemo treatments, medical leave, and gratitude for Hillel’s support. Frankly, she blew the roof off of the place. Then something strange happened – people congratulated me – crediting me for a speech that I had absolutely nothing to do with. A leader’s success comes from their team’s success.
Embrace the Journey!
Recently, Hillel International invited me to share my grizzled wisdom with the newest crop of executive directors. Somewhere between the dead cat and the dog bite, a director joked, “I’m glad you didn’t talk to us before we accepted our jobs!” With Covid-19, a racial justice reckoning, rising anti-Semitism, and the everyday challenges of running a nonprofit – I can’t say with any certainty that my second year will be easier than the first. But every day, I’m honored to serve the largest population of Jewish undergrads in the United States, at an organization I believe in and with a team I can count on. I’ve never been happier or more inspired.
And when the next crisis seems insurmountable, I can always call my mom.
Matt Baram is the Executive Director of Hillel 818 in Northridge, CA, which serves the 6,500 undergraduate Jewish students at CSUN, Pierce College, and Valley College. He previously served as the Millennial Director at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.