Seth Goren will become the first full-time director of the Hillel Society in June.
As an associate practicing consumer protection and human rights law—what he calls “good guy law”—Seth Goren was intellectually stimulated and enjoyed his colleagues. But it was participation in his local Jewish community that got him truly excited.
“I loved it,” Goren says. “I felt passionate about the work I was doing, and at some point I realized, hey, I could be doing this for my job.”
Goren, an accomplished attorney, left his firm and went to rabbinical school, the first step in a journey that would bring him to Lehigh University, where this summer he will become the first full-time director of the Hillel Society
, a student-run organization that encourages and strengthens the continuity of Jewish values among the university’s Jewish students.
“The fact that the university really seemed to be making a push to take Jewish student life to the next level was incredibly attractive,” says Goren, who was ordained a rabbi in May 2007. “The potential for growth at Lehigh is really very, very strong. There already is a critical mass of Jewish students on campus, and to be located close to major Jewish centers means you really can tap into those markets. There's a potential for the Jewish presence on campus to go even higher.”
Hillel has been led for more than 20 years by part-time directors hired by the foundation that owns the Jewish Student Center on Summit Street. Only a portion of Lehigh’s estimated 600 to 650 Jewish students participate each year in Hillel activities, and university leaders would like to see participation increase.
"It's been hard to build continuity with students and people in the administration," says Roger Simon, professor of history who serves as Hillel's faculty advisor, president of the foundation, and cochair of the search committee that recommended Goren.
According to Simon, having a full-time director—especially one as qualified as Goren—will greatly strengthen Hillel and assist Lehigh in furthering many of its institutional goals.
"We convinced the university that in terms of diversity, enriching student life, and offering more alternatives to Greek life, this was a worthwhile investment," Simon says. "Other schools have been moving in this direction. In many ways, we really have not been keeping up with the competition. This enables us to do that."
Bringing people together
Sophomore Michael Butensky, Hillel’s president and a member of the search committee, believes Goren’s leadership will help enliven the group and increase Jewish participation in on-campus activities.
"There are 500 students we're not reaching," Butensky says. "With this full-time director, we'll be able to reach out to them and get them down there to increase our attendance at events. Seth has this great personality—I got the feeling that as soon as he gets here, he's going to want to take off."
Lehigh trustee Nancy Berman, director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, a longtime university benefactor, praises Butensky and other Hillel students for “doing a wonderful job of programming and creating a very viable organization,” adding that the presence of a full-time director will give the society “someone who could be called upon and could integrate into the university on a deep level of meaning and could really think through what's the best Hillel could do for the university.”
“Hillel is a home for Jewish students, a place where they can go to be Jewish, do social service, or gather and meet other Jews,” Berman says, “and it’s become a place to take friends and roommates who want to learn about Jewish culture. There are a lot of programs that bring people together.”
Prior to his appointment at Lehigh, Goren served as a project consultant at Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning in Washington and as director of graduate student and young adult programs at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Pittsburgh. Previously, he practiced law at Kohn Swift & Graf in Philadelphia and was a court administrative officer and judicial clerk for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania.
Goren holds an M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was widely honored, a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Penn.
"He's had a lot of life experiences which he'll bring to bear on the job," Simon says. "He has a very good understanding of what's going on in the lives and minds of college students. He's thought a lot about the kinds of issues that are going on with students in their college years and how to make that connection with them."
While Goren's resume is impressive enough, says Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and cochair of the search committee, it was his "energy and vision" that convinced the committee he is the person to take on the challenge of rejuvenating and bringing new relevance to Hillel.
"He's bringing a real level of expertise to the position that when we started the search we didn't think we'd be able to get," Steffen says. "But Lehigh was very attractive to him much as he was a very attractive person for us. We're incredibly excited about having him join the Lehigh community. He's going to be a real resource on our campus to enhance dialogue between religions. He's a person of amazing ability."
In addition to helping Lehigh’s students explore and develop their Jewish identity, Hillel seeks to foster pluralism, cross-cultural understanding, civic engagement, and service learning among its members. Its emphasis on intellectual exploration, individual identity development, interpersonal relationships, and community development closely parallel the university’s institutional goals.
"Hillel has the potential to be a vital religious organization on campus," Steffen says. "Hillel is important to a lot of Jewish students in their college lives. To have a director who is available to them is something that will enhance their whole experience at Lehigh—educationally, socially, and religiously."
Goren starts in June. He said he would spend his first few months listening to students and administrators across Lehigh in order to get a range of views on Jewish student life at the university.
“I’d like to use that as a basis of discussion among the community,” Goren says, “so that the community makes the decision on what our priorities are together and then helps to realize what our vision is.”