Featured Ads

New KU Hillel director plans to keep program growing and evolving

In late July, Leadership Tomorrow awarded KU Hillel a $1,200 grant for its Challah for Hunger project. Money from the grant will go to purchase equipment to make challah and education regarding food insecurity. Shown accepting the grant from KU Hillel are student Haley Seldin, Leah Swartz and Suzy Sostrin.

Suzy Sostrin knows she has big shoes to fill as the new executive director of KU Hillel. But she has already jumped in with both feet to make sure that KU Hillel remains one of the very best Hillels in the country.

KU Hillel is one of 550 Hillels at colleges and universities in the world. Sostrin, who came on board in early July, noted that KU Hillel’s mission, like other Hillels, is to connect Jewish students to each other and to their Judaism, to inspire and equip the next generation of Jewish leaders and to build a thriving Jewish community on campus.

“As the website says, we are developing Jewish adults and we are delivering the Jewish future,” she said.

In the last 15 years, under the leadership of former director Jay Lewis, who is now Hillel International’s campus support director for a large region including the Midwest and KU, KU Hillel has become a corvette in the world of Hillels. Sostrin is thrilled she has been given the opportunity to lovingly care for and give it “the constant attention it deserves to make sure that it continues to run smoothly.”

She said Lewis left her with a team of wonderful professionals to work with, including Program Director Leah Swartz, Engagement Associate Tori Luecking, Rabbi/Senior Education Neal Schuster and new Director of Development Michelle Cole.

“I believe with the foundation that has been built, along with our amazing board of directors and amazing team, that there is going to be much success in our future,” Sostrin said.

“Just as Jay improved the program every year, we plan also to continue to evolve and improve the program every year,” she continued.

A seasoned Hillel professional, Sostrin is a California native and attended the University of Santa Cruz for her undergraduate degree. She has worked for the Hillel movement for 10 years, the past five years as director of the University of Oklahoma Hillel. She started at San Diego State Hillel as director of Jewish student life. She then moved to Oregon Hillel as the assistant director and participated in Hillel International’s Accelerate Executive Leadership Program. She also holds a certification in nonprofit management from the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits. She lives in Overland Park with her husband and 5-year-old daughter.

Sostrin is no stranger to KU Hillel, as Lewis was her coach in the Accelerate program. The program trains assistant directors to be executive directors and as part of the program, Lewis brought Sostrin and two other mentees to Lawrence for training.

“I enjoyed Kansas City as a town and a community and discovering that KU Hillel is one of the most respected Hillels in the whole movement,” she explained.

Coincidentally, this isn’t the first time Sostrin has been associated with KU students. She staffed a Birthright trip in 2007 with Laura Gilman, who is now the care management team manager of Jewish Family Services.

Sostrin said she jumped at the chance to apply for the KU Hillel job, and is thrilled to be there.

“Even though we loved Oklahoma, KU Hillel, which serves 1,500 students, is an amazing Hillel to work for,” she said. “Everyone here is so wonderful!”

The new director doesn’t expect to make any major changes.

“Every time you have a new staff member at Hillel, no matter what position, there will be changes because everybody has their own flair. But we plan on continuing the core values of Hillel of creating a welcoming environment for students and providing a staff/student partnership.”

The first day of school at KU is Aug. 21, and KU Hillel’s first big program of the year will be a Freshmen Kick-Off event on Sunday, Aug. 20. An Open House at Hillel is planned for Tuesday, Aug. 22, and the annual Welcome Back Shabbat will take place on Friday, Aug. 25.

“Right now, we’re continuing a lot of the great programming that’s been happening. We’ve received a few grants that will allow us to do some new creative programming with Israel and some new Jewish education initiatives,” she explained. Those programs include Rock Chalk Shabbat on Nov. 3, the Beren Leadership Program and programs for freshmen.

“Tori is planning lots of fun freshmen-engagement programs and really focusing on continuing the partnership between the university and KU Hillel to continue making KU Hillel a great place for Jewish students.”

She noted that Hillel programming across the country has improved and become more engaging to all of the Jewish students over the past 15 years, and she expects it to continue to evolve as Hillel concentrates on how to serve its students best. 

“In the ’60s, Hillel really was a synagogue on campus but there wasn’t as much programming. Now we really understand that students are looking for community, a place to learn leadership, places to get internships and places to connect with other Jewish students, so our programming has changed. As millennials are graduating and Generation Z* is coming into college, we’ve changed our programming to best serve them.”

In the short time she’s been in Kansas, she’s been concentrating on meeting KU Hillel board members, other leaders of the Kansas City Jewish community and “all of our KU Hillel stakeholders.”

“It’s that fine balance of spending time in Lawrence and getting to know all the students and spending time in Overland Park to get to know the community. So I’ve been spending at least one day in Overland Park. Some of our students are in Overland Park this summer, and I’m meeting some students here as well.”

As the first day of school inches closer, Sostrin is looking forward to meeting all the students. She has already met about 30 of the student leaders at a barbecue held at Rabbi Schuster’s home.

“They were amazing and wonderful to get to know, and I look forward to the start of school and building relationships with the students and seeing the evolution of the year.” 

*Editor’s note: Generation Z is roughly defined as people born in the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s and began using the internet at a young age and are comfortable with technology and interacting on social media.