Uriel Cohen, an experienced Hillel administrator, will serve as the next executive director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life and Rabbi Jason Rubenstein will take over as Jewish chaplain, Slifka’s board of directors announced in community-wide emails last month.
When they begin work later in August, Cohen will succeed Peggy Gries Wager ’82, who has served on an interim basis for the past year, and Rubenstein will fill a position that has remained vacant since the abrupt departure last summer of Rabbi Leah Cohen, who worked as both executive director and Jewish chaplain.
“I’m just so excited to come to Yale and to get started at Slifka,” said Cohen, who previously served for seven years as executive director of the Queens College Hillel in New York. “The impact that we can all have is just tremendous.”
Rubenstein and Cohen come to Yale as part of a new administrative model for Slifka, with leadership responsibilities divided between the chaplain and a non-rabbinic executive director. Their appointments mark the end of a sometimes-contentious search process.
At a town hall in February, students involved with Slifka complained that the leadership search lacked transparency and criticized the board of directors, calling the body overly secretive. In recent years, students have also complained that Slifka’s board runs the center more like a business than a religious community.
Responding to those concerns, Cohen told the News that he hopes to strengthen partnerships among Slifka’s stakeholders, including the board of directors, the University and the center’s student members. In particular, he said, he hopes to restore student trust by fostering a healthy relationship between students and the leadership team run by him and Rubenstein.
“The instability in the professional leadership that has been the status quo has made this partnership difficult,” Cohen said. “Slifka Center will always be all about the students, and our team will work vigilantly to ensure that students are heard and their needs are met.”
As executive director of the Queens College Hillel, Cohen — who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in public administration from New York University — ushered in major organizational changes, including a facilities renovation and new student programs and initiatives. Under his leadership, participation in Hillel programming more than quadrupled — from 300 to 1,300 students — and its staff size and operating budget both tripled.
“[Cohen] has won widespread praise and numerous awards and has been recognized as one of the most engaging, energetic, and successful executive directors throughout the Hillel movement,” Slifka’s board of directors wrote in an email announcing his hiring last week.
Cohen said he plans to use his professional experience to develop and enact a vision for Slifka that promotes Jewish identity on campus and contributes to the University community.
Rubenstein, a Harvard graduate, currently serves as dean of students and alumni at the Hadar Institute, a traditional egalitarian yeshiva in Manhattan. In addition to serving as dean, Rubenstein teaches Talmud and Jewish thought and is known for his pluralistic approach to Jewish teaching and theology.
According to a July 13 email announcing his appointment, Slifka’s search committee found Rubenstein “thoughtful, erudite, warm, and passionate,” and was impressed with his desire to make Jewish life on campus welcoming to students with diverse religious backgrounds and beliefs.
Rubenstein was not immediately available to discuss his new role.
Margalit Feuer ’20, co-president of Slifka’s student board and a member of the search committee charged with hiring the new executive director and Jewish chaplain, who is also a production and design editor at the News, said the two appointments will usher in a new chapter in the center’s history.
“Slifka has been yearning for a large change,” Feuer said. “The people coming in are excited and full of energy. What they are looking to do at Slifka echoes what I and many students are trying to do at Slifka, so this is a fantastic opportunity.”
The Slifka Center is located at 80 Wall Street.
Clarification, August. 7: This version of the article has been updated to include the fact that Margalit Feuer is a production and design editor at the News.