The Jewish Federation of Louisville has a new Young Adult Director. Benji Berlow brings energy, enthusiasm and a passion for cultivating communities and making Judaism relevant. With a strong background in Judaism across the spectrum and extensive experience working with Hillel, he is an experiential Jewish educator, song leader and Israeli dance instructor, who brings a lot to the table.
He also has strong Louisville connections. His wife, Lisa Sobel-Berlow, is a Louisville native. They met while working for Hillel staffing Birthright Israel together and were married in 2012 at Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Berlow grew up in Palmerton, a small town in northeast Pennsylvania, where his was the only active Jewish family in the town and maybe even the county. His parents’ commitment to raising their three sons as Jews was so strong that they enrolled the boys in the pluralistic Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Allentown, half an hour’s drive from their home and they were regular participants in the Conservative synagogue in Bethlehem, also half an hour from their home.
Berlow attended high school in Palmerton. When his older brother graduated, he was the only Jew in school. That sometimes made life interesting.
At one point, he explained, “the teachers thought I was making up holidays. They said, ‘I’ve heard of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur before, but now you’re saying there’s a holiday where you go into a booth and shake a palm branch and a lemon together? It just seems like you’re making stuff up at this point.’ And it was Sukkot that I was telling them I had to take off for.”
In high school, Berlow was a member of National Honor Society, and when his friends decided to go Christmas caroling, he bowed out gracefully, promising to participate in other volunteer activities. His friends turned it into a positive experience by learning a Chanukah song and stopping at his house to sing it while they were out.
Berlow cites involvement in BBYO as the catalyst for his strong Jewish identity. He was a leader in his chapter and his region. He attended international conventions and went with BBYO on the March of the Living.
The year he went, 2002, was the height of the Intifada. Two weeks before Berlow’s group was scheduled to leave, there was a suicide bomb attack at a Seder in the Park Hotel in Netanya. Normally, March of the Living participants spend a week on Holocaust education in Poland and then a week in Israel celebrating the birth of the Jewish State. That year, the March of the Living took participants to Spain for the second week.
There were many glitches in the Spanish portion of the trip since it had been thrown together so quickly, but one brief statement really brought it into focus for Berlow. “We were at a synagogue,” he said, and “an educator was talking about the Inquisition. Everybody was so tired. Suddenly, the educator stopped and said, ‘look, I know this is something that happened 500 years ago, but just think about it. We just came from Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau. That happened 50 years ago.
“‘What are people going to think about the Holocaust when the generation of Holocaust survivors is no longer with us? Are they just going to think about it the way you’re thinking about the Inquisition now?’ That stuck with me,” Berlow said, “in terms of wanting to get the message across as to the importance of Jewish history and Jewish education and connecting to that past as part of our present.”
It was during his BBYO years that he learned to play guitar. “In my region,” he recalled, “Havdallah was very big. There would be nine guitar players in the middle playing the classic Havdallah songs but also secular songs. I didn’t know how to play guitar, but I brought one and would try to strum along and by senior year, I was leading the Havdallah services. That summer I ended up leading BBYO international programs for their Kesher, Kallah and ILTC [International Leadership Training Conference] programs.”
Berlow attended Lafayette College where he earned a B.A. in psychology and Jewish studies, graduating Magna Cum Laude. Throughout his time there, he was active in Hillel, Jewish music and Jewish song leading. Starting his freshman year, he even attended six Union for Reform Judaism Hava Nashira music conferences.
He also participated in a certificate program at Yeshiva University and published two articles on eJewishPhilanthropy; received management training at Carnegie Mellon University; and participated in numerous professional development programs.
Prior to coming to Louisville, he worked as the Jewish student life director at Carnegie Mellon University, the program director for Hillel of Silicon Valley and the Senior Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Milwaukee.
Berlow is eager to begin his work in Louisville and has already begun to help the Young Adult Division plan their main Campaign event, which will be a Purim Murder Mystery in March.
He is responsible for working with all Jewish young adults and he is looking forward to cultivating small communities – undergraduate and graduate students, singles, young couples, young families, young professionals, interfaith families, etc. – creating a wide variety of programs in multiple venues that connect people with common interests and link them to the Jewish community.
“If young adults are interested in going to a movie,” he explained, they might gather for drinks beforehand. Or if there is a major event going on like a marathon, there could be a team of Jewish young adults competing.
“I think there’s a lot of potential here and a lot of energy and enthusiasm from young adults who want to be involved but just haven’t had the vehicle to get there yet,” he said. Berlow is also excited about continuing his work with Hillel and working with current leaders “to be able to create a community and a home for Jewish students, not only at the University of Louisville, but at all of the local schools … have a place, a connection to Jewish Louisville.”
He is planning Shabbat dinners both on and off campus, as well as educational events. Berlow wants students to have “a voice on campus” and to be able to be “proud to be Jewish on campus and to educate the campus about Jewish culture, Jewish holidays and Israel.”