Rabbi Balinsky leaves legacy at NU

Rabbi Michael Balinsky draws on a parable to explain his mission at Northwestern:

A man starts playing a musical instrument with such beauty and sweetness that listeners are unable to control themselves from the pleasure, so they start dancing.

When a deaf person comes along, he can’t understand the scene — but that’s no excuse, according to the parable, drawn from a Hasidic text. If the man were a little more sensitive, he would’ve danced anyway.

“The Jewish community at times has become a little tone deaf and lost its hearing and in many cases has stopped dancing,” said Balinsky, who will end his 20-year tenure as director of NU’s Hillel Foundation in June. “What I try to do is help people understand that there is something at times we are missing — to help them reach that sensitivity.”

And, for the most part, he’s succeeded. Since 1981, Balinsky has transformed Hillel into one of the most prominent student groups at NU by boosting attendance, expanding programming and, most visibly, pushing to build the Fiedler Hillel Center.

In addition, Balinsky has resolved campuswide tensions and presided at former students’ weddings. His mark on Hillel — “the house that Balinsky built,” as the Hillel president calls it — won’t fade any time soon.

“He came into a fairly moribund program that wasn’t attracting many people and he turned it into a place where whatever people wanted to pursue, they could learn about, find out about,” said Rochelle Elstein, a lecturer in the religion department. “And he gave all this control to the students. Whatever they wanted, they could do and he was only there as a backup. He’s done a fabulous job.”

It took all of Balinsky’s ability in February 1997 when For Members Only brought controversial Nation of Islam leader Khallid Abdul Muhammad to campus. Jewish students protested and tensions flared between Hillel and FMO.

So Balinsky took charge. He condemned Muhammad at a rally the day of the speech and, in the aftermath, worked with Hillel and FMO until anger subsided.

Needless to say, his peers were impressed.

“In spite of (Muhammad’s) efforts to belittle you, you were unflinching in your belief of the principles of civility and respect,” Norris University Center Director Bill Johnston said at a ceremony honoring the Rabbi on Sunday. “You were the man who stood on principle and determination. You were so tall that day that you might have gone over to SPAC and dunked for the first time of your life.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Peggy Barr, who is also leaving in June, said Balinsky was always an ally she could turn to when students were dissatisfied.

“I have always been able to count on him when I needed support, when I needed help in terms of dealing with difficult situations, when I needed advice, when I was dealing with irate parents because I didn’t give enough time off for whatever holiday, ” Barr said. “Michael was always there.”

With such a diverse Jewish community, Balinsky made all students feel welcome and encouraged them to attend activities they normally would have avoided, music Prof. Judith Schwartz said.

But she said Balinsky would always set students or visiting speakers straight when they used faulty reasoning.

“He’s not wishy-washy and doesn’t let people say anything they want,” Schwartz said. “He’s extremely liberal and will criticize remarks on the right and remarks on the left and try to steer people toward an understanding of Jewish thought. He’s enabled people to clarify their way of thinking.”

Ada Golbus, who has worked as an administrative assistant at Hillel for 11 years, said Jewish students now have a much better community than when her three children attended NU long before Balinsky’s tenure.

“They can be anywhere and they can be part of anything,” she said. “But when my children were here, there were definite boundaries.”

And she credited Balinsky with expanding the comfort zone of Jewish students on campus by boosting the presence of Hillel.

“He made an open, warm, friendly place so that our students are welcome everywhere,” Golbus said.

But Balinsky said the growth of Hillel is more the work of students, so he doesn’t expect his departure to have a great impact.

“There are many, many more students who have taken on a variety of leadership roles and provided a whole variety of Jewish options,” he said. “The students feel a tremendous sense of responsibility that the majority of what’s going to happen is dependent on them.”

Balinsky said he’s treated differently by students now, at 47, than when he first came to NU at 27. The change hit him at this month’s Jewish Theatre Ensemble’s performance, when he was visiting with a student.

A man approached the two, turned to the student and motioned to Balinsky.

“Is this your father?” the man asked.

Before coming to NU, Balinsky served as associate director of the University of Michigan’s Hillel. He received his Rabbinical training at Yeshiva University and also has served as the Jewish chaplain at Evanston Hospital.

Now he will be working at the Florence Melton Adult School’s national headquarters in Northbrook, working to improve a two-year adult international education program.

But Balinsky said his main reason for leaving is to spend more time with his wife, Myra, and his three daughters, Ruthie, 15; Miriam, 12; and Leora, 5.

Balinsky said that while there were aspects of the job he would miss, he wouldn’t miss the long hours and crazy schedule and wanted a more stable work environment.

“As much as I enjoyed Jewish holidays (at Hillel), it often meant being away from my family,” he added.

In addition to his three daughters, hundreds of students that have passed through the doors of Hillel consider him part of their families.

For Weinberg sophomore Aaron Reitman, Balinsky was like a brother who’d joke around and nudge him in the ribs.

“You know that he likes you when he starts making fun of you,” Reitman said. “He just started making jokes and then I knew that we’d established a relationship.”

Hillel President Brad Helfand agreed that Balinsky’s accomplishments are a testament to his casual demeanor.

“He’s not like the administrator who sits behind the desk and just does paperwork,” Helfand said. “He actually gets out there, meets students and through all that, he’s able to convey his passion for Judaism and Jewish life in general.”