Talmud Torah, Temple of Aaron and Beth Jacob Congregation youth programs, numerous JCC activities, Herzl Camp, Alexander Muss High School in Israel, AEPi Fraternity, a Master’s degree in Jewish Professional Leadership, and several amazing community leader mentors . . . These are just a few of the things that Minnesota Hillel Executive Director Benjie Kaplan took part in growing up. They are also the reason he gives for his recent Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award, Hillel International’s highest professional honor, which was bestowed on him this month at this year’s Hillel International Global Assembly in Denver, Colorado.
Almost four years ago, when Kaplan took over as the director of Hillel, the organization (locally) was struggling to keep its doors open. Funding cuts made in the late 2000s had made it difficult to keep their facility operational and more importantly it kept them from being able to offer students and staff the resources needed to grow and expand their programmatic offerings. Since then, Kaplan has worked vigorously to engage alumni, parents, and donors near and far to bring the facility up to snuff, and to develop the resources needed to make Minnesota one of the best Hillels in the country. Highlighting those years: the building underwent a significant beautification, an Israeli Emissary and a Rabbi were added to the staff, the organization grew to include five travel opportunities for students looking to go to Israel (bringing close to 100 students there each year), and Hillel now operates on five campuses around Minnesota rather than just at the U of M.
Because of these efforts, and more, Hillel International selected Benjie, “for being a tireless advocate for students and for revivifying Minnesota Hillel at a most critical juncture.”
The work of rebuilding and rebranding Minnesota Hillel isn’t over yet though. While Kaplan is extremely moved by this high honor, he says, “individual honors are always nice, and they help validate that you are doing the work you were meant to do, and doing it well. However, I still have my eye on making Minnesota the best Hillel in the country, and building a program that inspires local students to stay here in Minnesota while bringing Jewish students from around the country to the Twin Cities.”
For now, individual honors will have to do. Keep an eye out for even greater things as this Hillel Director, who gained so much from Jewish communal life, continues to put his upbringing to use for the betterment of the community that raised him.