Benjie Kaplan, executive director of Minnesota Hillel at the University of Minnesota, was one of five recipients of Hillel’s Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Awards at the Hillel International Global Assembly at the start of December.
The award is described on the Website for Hillel International as rewarding “outstanding commitment to fulfilling Hillel’s mission of service to Jewish students around the globe.” Kaplan explained in interview with American Jewish World, this is the highest award in the Hillel community.
Kaplan was hired by Hillel in 2014 to address student involvement and develop local resources. He was, as he explains, unusually well-connected for the job. “I went to Talmud Torah of St. Paul,” the Mendota Heights native explained. “I went to Herzl Camp. I was a member of Beth Jacob. My wife was a member of Temple Israel, and we married at Temple Israel.”
As a result, he sees the award as not merely honoring him, but honoring the local Jewish community, which provided him with his Jewish identity. “I owe my Jewish background to many in this community,” he said.
This background gave him the tools to pursue one of his earliest goals in his position, reengaging Hillel alumni. This has helped provide the financial resources for renovating the Hillel community as well as doing extensive outreach to University students. The University of Minnesota Hillel House reaches 600 students and does 130 programs over the course of nine months, according to Kaplan.
These programs range from social to educational, and provide engagement opportunities for a variety of student interest levels. “We know that not every student is going to be comfortable in every space,” Kaplan said. “We try to keep Hillel large and open and have no barrier to entry.” (AJW Staff Report)