“I want to inspire big, Jewish thinking,” said Rabbi Joshua Bolton, the newly appointed executive director of Brown/RISD Hillel. In his new role, Bolton is looking to build Hillel up as an outreach center for students that engages with both Jewish and non-Jewish community members.
Before coming to the University this past summer, Bolton spent eight years at Penn where he directed the Jewish Renaissance Project, which sought to engage with Penn’s campus community at large and “create platforms for students to engage with Jewish ideas through the prism of their own lived experiences,” Bolton said. He replaced Dan Ehrenkrantz who was appointed as Hillel’s acting executive director in 2018.
Bolton chooses to work at universities because “there is something that is uniquely possible, and I think even sacred to the culture and cosmos of the university,” Bolton said. “There is a courageous engagement with difference.”
He hopes to translate his work at Penn to the University by continuing to emphasize the importance of community engagement.
“The idea that we could set up shop … and just wait for everyone to show up is over,” he said. Instead, Hillel members must go out into the community and meet students “both literally and figuratively where they’re at.”
For example, at Penn, Bolton created a Greek life leadership seminar in which students from various fraternity and sorority houses could discuss topics such as “the significance of Jewish houses in a period of multiculturalism and assimilation.”
“Students’ lives take place in their dorms, in their classes … and in virtual spaces. I think that any Jewish organization has to be able to speak to students in all those places,” he said.
Bolton also hopes to make Hillel a “platform for every Jewish — and really every student — at Brown” to engage with the existential and ethical questions that are fundamental to Judaism, he said.
Bolton acknowledged that Jewish people face a multitude of challenges in the twenty-first century, spanning questions of peoplehood, antisemitism, ambivalence and “how to interpret an ancient tradition into an idiom of our own period.” But more than that, Bolton finds the greatest challenge that Hillel faces to be in harnessing the “unbelievable creative, innovative and entrepreneurial talents of students” into addressing those questions, he added.
Even so, Bolton sees these difficulties as opportunities. “History has demonstrated that in moments of the most confounding challenge, the opportunities found in those challenges have been what has propelled Jewish life forward.”
Bolton is spending his first months on campus listening, learning and building relationships with students and staff. “I’ve been taking in the campus fifteen miles an hour on a Lime scooter just to see everything,” Bolton said.
Bolton has also begun working with Hillel’s student leaders and staff on fall programming, such as an upcoming “Chai on Life” overnight retreat for first-years and transfer students. “I am so excited to be working with (Bolton),” wrote Claire Miller ’21, president of Hillel’s executive board, in an email to The Herald. “He allows me to drive our agenda and always asks to make sure he is providing the support that I need,” she added. Miller, along with two other student leaders, served on the search committee that selected Bolton as the new executive director.
Jordan Mann ’15, a program associate at Hillel, is looking forward to working under Bolton’s leadership. “It feels like there’s a greater sense of vision around what we’re supposed to be doing at Hillel,” Mann said. “Just knowing that we’re going out to engage as many students as possible … is really exciting.”
Bolton “is at once a poet and a pragmatist,” wrote Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, associate University chaplain for the Jewish community, in an email to The Herald. “He comes to this work with an ambitious vision, generous heart and playful spirit, all of which make him a joy to work with.”