Hillel Rabbi to leave NU, take new job in Washington, D.C.


Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Rabbi Aaron Potek spoke with “Orange is the New Black” star Natasha Lyonne in February about her Jewish identity. Potek is leaving NU at the end of this year to take a new job in Washington.

Rebecca Savransky, Design Editor

Fiedler Hillel Rabbi Aaron Potek said his goals while at Northwestern were to create communities, engage with students and help them find their Jewish identity — in whatever way they felt comfortable.

And even though he’ll be leaving at the end of this school year to take on a new job in Washington D.C., his work at NU isn’t over yet.

“I definitely want to go out with a bang,” he said. “I want to share as much of my teachings as I can and ask as many provocative questions as I can and create as many places for growth and reflections as I can.”

Potek, who’s worked at NU since July 2013, announced in January his plans to leave the University at the end of the academic year. He will work for a new startup organization called Gather the Jews. In the position, he’ll help Jews in their 20s and 30s connect with Judaism in a way that’s meaningful to them.

And even though he said his decision to leave NU was the hardest one he’s ever had to make, Potek said he looks forward to what the new position offers.

“I was excited about the idea of being brought on to create a vision of a new organization,” he said. “It felt like a blank canvas where I could really engage with out-of-the-box approaches to Judaism.”

At NU, Potek said he found people are much more interested in engaging with Judaism than one might think.

“When you offer a Judaism that’s open and accepting but authentic and text-based, when you give students the chance to connect to their Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them and not tell them how they should connect to their Judaism, then people want to get involved,” he said.

During his time on campus, Potek spurred a host of conversations and put together many new events. He started SinaiSlam, where students performed original poems and stories to celebrate the Jewish holiday Shavuot, and put on Rabbi Rants, where he’d talk about a variety of subjects on Friday nights.

He also held many seminars each week — and is adding new ones Spring Quarter. This quarter he will lead conversations called “Back to Basics Judaism” and “Sex, Love and Intimacy.” Along with students, he’s helped put on Jewish Sustained Dialogue — based on the campus-wide programming — where a group of people explore how their Jewish identity intersects with other identities.

Although Potek said he hasn’t been at NU for long enough to really feel like he made a serious impact, he said he still had the rewarding experiences to be able to see so many students grow and learn.

Hillel is in the process of looking for a new rabbi and has dozens of potential candidates, Hillel executive director Michael Simon said.

Once the search committee narrows the pool to a handful of candidates, finalists will visit the campus for another round of interviews. Simon said the new rabbi will hopefully be chosen by the time Potek leaves.

Simon said they’re looking for a candidate who can engage, connect and relate to a wide variety of students both within and outside the Jewish community.

Potek will leave difficult shoes to fill, Simon said. He’s been proactive at meeting students where they are and helping to move them along in their journey. On a more personal level, Simon said he’ll miss Potek’s sense of humor and his ability to challenge his colleagues to be as effective as possible.

Mitchell Caminer, co-president of Hillel, said Potek has been an “unbelievable asset” to the community.

“He’s been fantastic in connecting to students where they are,” the Weinberg junior said, “in terms of engaging them in what’s meaningful about their lives.”

When Potek led an Alternative Student Break trip to Morocco last year, Caminer said they’d stay up for hours — probably later than they should have — talking about religious and cultural issues.

Although Potek is leaving NU and excited for his new adventure, he said the relationships he’s formed here, the lessons he’s learned and conversations he’s had have shaped him and his relationship with Judaism.

“I’m going to really miss this place,” he said.

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Twitter: @beccasavransky