October 17, 2018

Caught in the Interim

In Rabbi Michael Katz’s office at Cal State Northridge Hillel hanga “Star Trek” poster and a picture of Binyamin Netanyahu. There’salso a futon — not your basic college-issue office furniture.

The new interim director, who has worked at CSUN Hillel since1986, is obviously a man of discrepancies: He’s Orthodox (he sleepson the futon following Friday-night services), his politics areright-wing (he admits that he admired the late Rabbi Meir Kahane),but he readily relates to the students, most of whom are notOrthodox.

While Katz, 37, conducts a monthly Orthodox Shabbat service,during which there is a mechitza and women do not lead prayers, healso prepares women to conduct Hillel Reform services and even tostudy for the Reform rabbinate.

He is, moreover, the man to whom students turn for advice onmatters ranging from sex to love to parents. When they join him forimpromptu Shabbatons at Hillel, camping out in their sleeping bags,Katz stays up with them until all hours, discussing God and life anddeath.

“He cares about what the students are going through. He lends anear. He listens,” said Hillel member Michael Resnik, 22, who addedthat Katz is an honorary member of his Jewish fraternity, AlphaEpsilon Pi.

“He is very open-minded,” said Hillel president Alon Doitch, 21, asenior mathematics and accounting major.

Resnik and Doitch, therefore, were dismayed when Katz was notautomatically tabbed to succeed outgoing Hillel director RabbiJerrold Goldstein, who announced his retirement in March. After all,Katz had worked at Hillel for 11 years as program director andassociate director, respectively, and “he knows us,” Resnik said.

The students were so upset that they circulated letters ofrecommendation and a petition on Katz’s behalf, signed by most of thesome 60 active Hillel members. Doitch personally met with RabbiRichard Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council;he learned that LAHC routinely holds what is tantamount to openauditions for this kind of job.

Doitch will sit on the LAHC search committee, yet he and the otherstudents worry that Hillel is wary about Katz because he is Orthodoxand most of CSUN’s Jewish students are not.

Levy staunchly disagrees. “Cal State Northridge is a majorcampus,” he told The Journal. “It has long been looked upon as anational model for work with commuter students, so it is importantthat we open up the position to a national search.”

The result is that Katz has the interim position for only a year,just long enough to allow for the national search; at the end of thattime, he worries, he could be out of the job he loves. It’s adaunting thought for the low-key rabbi, for whom CSUN has become farmore than simply a career.

Katz is the son and grandson of Conservative rabbis; hisgrandfather, Rabbi Isaac Klein, was a major figure in theConservative movement. Katz lived in Israel off and on for 13 years,and he became Orthodox while earning a psychology degree fromBar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

He came to CSUN Hillel almost by accident, after he had moved toLos Angeles in the 1980s. He took the program director position as achange from the odd jobs he had been working. That first year wasrough for a young man used to an Orthodox milieu.

“My boss was a Reform woman rabbi; the chair of my student boardwas a lesbian, and having sex seemed a normal part of the [unmarried]students’ daily lives,” he says. “Everyone was wary because I wasOrthodox, and I couldn’t open my mouth without saying somethingpolitically incorrect.”

But by the time Goldstein, who is Reform and politically liberal,arrived in 1987, Katz had drawn upon his psychology training todevelop close relationships with the mostly assimilated students.

“I wasn’t telling them what to do; I was helping them resolvetheir own issues,” Katz said.

He found the job a satisfying blend of counseling, administrationand religion, and vowed to make Hillel, and specifically CSUN Hillel,a career.

That meant that he would need an advanced degree to progressbeyond program director, so he studied toward an Orthodox rabbinicalordination and earned his smicha in 1993.

Goldstein was “the outside man,” cultivating relationships withfaculty and administrators, and becoming the confidant of universityPresident Blenda J. Wilson during the fray over Louis Farrakhan’s1993 campus visit. Katz was the “inside man,” attending to students’spiritual and personal needs, helping with dances and leadershiptraining. Goldstein attended campus rallies for affirmative action;Katz thought that such involvement would alienate students whoopposed affirmative action.

Although he is politically and religiously conservative, “Michaelhas always understood that Hillel is about Jewish diversity andpluralism,” Goldstein said.

Katz was surprised when he was not automatically appointed toreplace Goldstein, but the older rabbi was not. “The L.A. HillelCouncil needs to be sure the new director can adequatelyfund-raise…and maintain a significant relationship with theuniversity and some of its issues,” Goldstein says.

And, so, as the CSUN fall semester began this past week, Katz wasimmersing himself in the public arena, which was previouslyGoldstein’s domain. He was meeting with a campus vice president and aProtestant chaplain and was gearing up to raise the $28,000 neededover and above last year’s budget (he’s already made somefund-raising inroads in the Orthodox community).

Katz told The Journal that he would not protest the university’sright to allow a Louis Farrakhan or a David Duke on campus, because”if the students vote on it, that’s the democratic process.”

The Jewish students, meanwhile, were vowing to continue supportingKatz in his quest to become the permanent director of CSUN Hillel.

“I don’t even want to think about losing our rabbi, who has meantso much to us,” Doitch said.