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Long Journey Home

Bradley Erbesfield was named the director of Hillel at the University of California Irvine (UCI) shortly before the school year began, making a 2,000-mile journey to start his new job.  Orange County Jewish Life caught up with Brad to find out his aspirations and his plans.

How did you become involved in Jewish life? I’ve been involved in Jewish life since middle school, and it got the juices flowing.  By college, I realized it was a career path.  I started out in JCC camp and BBYO.  After going to Camp Barney Mednitz in Atlanta, I became a unit head, head specialist, media supervisor and supervisor for staff in training there.

How did you get involved in Hillel specifically? Hillel was a home for me at the University of Georgia, where I got my undergraduate and master’s degrees.  I felt comfortable, met friends and had fun.  I knew I could be myself and be Jewish.  I became an intern there, then a program assistant and then a program director.  To me, Hillel represents a gateway for Jews to be Jewish in their own way.  They can “do Jewish how they want to do Jewish.”  I’m passionate about students and programming.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences? At the University of Georgia there was a student who was in a wheelchair and wanted to go on Birthright and experience it in the same way as everyone else.  There’s an organization called Amazing Israel that takes 25 to 30 disabled students from the U.S. and Canada on a Birthright trip.  Each student gets a one-on-one aide and gets to go rappelling, rafting, “climbing” Masada via the elevator and doing all the other elements of the typical trip.  I got to be that student’s aide, and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

What do you do for fun? I’m a big sports fan – baseball, football, basketball.  I like movies, music (especially the Dave Matthews Band), restaurants and travel.

What brought you across the country to UCI? When I had a working interview for this job, I realized that it was a great opportunity to build on the positive things going on here, make a positive impact and branch out from what had become a comfort zone.  Daniel (Harris, executive director of Hillel of Orange County) is very easy to approach and work with, and he’s a great mentor.  The students are great and highly motivated.  They have a lot of wonderful ideas, and I act as a facilitator.  They’re energetic, professional and passionate, but they also know how to laugh.  I felt that I could be that guy to support them, so I dropped everything, put my essentials in the car and drove cross country.

What do you like most about your job so far? The best part of my day is just having a conversation with the students, just talking and engaging each other.  Hillel is all about building relationships and engagement.  It’s about character building.  I enjoy watching the students make their own decisions and being their guide, resource, motivator and developer.  I like to see them be Jewish in a way that is fun and engaging for them.

What kinds of plans do you have for UCI Hillel this year? We have tons of things going on.  We just had an open house with the Jewish Studies Department.  We have a regular “Schmooze and Schmear” event on campus with bagels, cream cheese, orange juice and coffee.  We talk and laugh.  It’s a cost-effective way of engaging people on campus.  We have dinners with Chabad and dinners of our own.  We’re going to have a booth at the Chanukah celebration at the JCC and do things with kids there.  We have a pluralistic rabbis’ roundtable.  We celebrate holidays together.  We’re going to have a Purim party with all three campuses.

Does Hillel serve graduate and undergraduate students? We serve both undergraduate and graduate students, but it’s harder for graduate students to be involved.  For them, we have shorter and simpler events – dinners, wine and cheese events and watching games – that they have time to do.

What do you like about UCI so far? It’s like an ice cream shop with a great menu of options for Jewish students to choose a flavor. There’s a nice Jewish community here with nice, passionate students who can become community leaders after their experience here.  I want to help them have experiences that they’ll remember all their lives.

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