Meredith Burak

Deans Society
“We grow stronger through debate - it’s a Jewish value.”
University of Vermont, Hillel International Board of Directors

Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Burlington, VT and now I live between Tel Aviv, NY, and Philadelphia.

What is your profession?
I am an entrepreneur in the cannabis and biotech industry in Jerusalem.

When was the first time you became active with Hillel, and what did you do?
Hillel was trying to get me involved before I even started my first class in Vermont. But it wasn’t until the beginning of sophomore year that I wanted to get involved with something bigger than myself. I was studying the Holocaust more in depth, I took a yearlong class on the religious and moral response to the Holocaust, and I was searching for something important to do.

Hillel was knocking on my door and I decided to let them in. I told them I was not interested in doing anything religious, but I would love to focus on social justice. The director mentioned different program options and brought up ethnic cleansing in Sudan (2004). There wasn’t a lot written on it on the time, so I started researching Sudan and Darfur and wanted to get more involved. I needed to work with people across the country and all over the world. Hillel invested in me and started a campus club that gave me tremendous leadership training. I founded Stand, which is a student-led movement to end mass atrocities and genocide. Hillel was also the first entity to send me to Israel in 2005. Being at Hillel was the first time I didn’t feel like I stood out for being Jewish. I didn’t have to feel like the ‘other.’

At Hillel, no one ever checked if I was Jewish, I felt valued. The question was always what do you want to accomplish?, how can we help you?, and in the meantime, please come for Shabbat!

Why do you think Hillel’s work is crucial today?
I love the concept of ‘every and enduring’ because I strongly relate to it. I’ve always taken the unconventional road, such as supporting Hillels outside of North America. I was there for the opening of Krakow, I met with chair of Hillel Moscow, I’ve met with Latin America Hillels – these communities need Hillel because they don’t have strong vibrant Jewish life in their own communities. Hillel is that center for them. Hillel is such a huge opportunity to connect people all over the world.

I want to establish a more representational board outside of North America and I want to see younger representation.

The issues that are closest to my heart are social justice and empowering students to change the world and improve their communities.

What trends do you see right now in Jewish life on campus?
Young Jews are dealing with a major transition – we are 70+ years post-Holocaust and the birth of Israel, it’s like no other time before. Most generations have not experienced war and our relationship with Israel is changing. Israel is a thriving country, it’s growing into a world leader, and it can save the world with technology, water, agriculture, and medicine- the innovation happens in Israel and the rest of the world can benefit from it.

The attitude on campus is shifting and students are focusing on politics and Israel isn’t perfect in that regard. Forming a strong relationship with students on campus is a different type of relationship. There’s so much politics and less of a focus on “Without Israel we don’t have anything” we’re in a luxurious place to be, and it’s because of so many years of growth and innovation. 

The question of our survival is not imminent. Students have to relearn the basics and be engaged in the basics. Students are activists; the best time to be an activist is when you’re a student. Students want to be productive and the argument “That we need to be support Israel no questions asked” doesn’t resonate with generations today.

We need deeper conversations and deeper understanding about the establishment of the state. There’s a clash between “If you challenge Israel, you’re threatening their existence”. Hillel offers an opportunity to bridge this generational gap.

How do you draw on your background as a leader to help your local Hillel’s governance?
It is important as a lay leader to challenge your fellow board members; group think. We grow stronger from debate- it’s a Jewish value. So as a board member we need to challenge our way of thinking, we need to listen to people who are living this work every day.

What are the most important skills our leaders need to help guide Hillel through the 21st century?
Listening. Listening to the students and our directors on campus.

What do you think Hillel’s lay leaders from different part of the globe can learn from each other?
This world is global. Hillel has such wealth in their resources and wealth in their connections and network- we need all of them, not just one.

How would the connection with global leaders make your local Hillel stronger?
Hillel is a bright light in my life that always wants to help. It’s a gift and I’m lucky to have this resource and I want to make sure that other people have it for many generations to come.



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