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New A&M Hillel Leader Draws on Disaster Management Experience to Lead Jewish Aggies
Sunday, 01 September 2013
By Tonyia Cone

Rabbi Matthew Rosenberg. Credit: JHeisler PhotographyA new face is welcoming students to Texas A&M Hillel this fall. Rabbi Matthew Rosenberg took the organization’s helm as rabbi and executive director on July 1.

Rabbi Peter Tarlow previously held the position since 1983.

Rosenberg was raised in a secular home in rural Sacramento, about 45 minutes from the community Hebrew school. The distance made it easy to convince his mom to let him play hooky.

Around the time Rosenberg was in seventh grade, his father gave him what turned out to be an important gift -- a scanner that picked up the frequencies used by the local fire department and law enforcement.

Rosenberg started going to emergencies he heard about on the scanner to cover them for a community newspaper he started. He began hanging out at the fire department, became a volunteer firefighter and was president of his local fire explorers post.

His senior year in high school, Rosenberg became certified as an emergency medical technician and a CPR and first aid instructor for the American Red Cross.

After taking some of their disaster classes, he “became a disaster addict.” 

Rosenberg went to the University of California, Davis, where he became a disaster volunteer and began teaching disaster training for volunteers.

While teaching one of the classes, he met Jen, now his wife and the mother of his three young children, who asked him out to Friday night services at Hillel.

“I had never been to Hillel and I was petrified,” he said.

After stumbling through the transliterated service and dinner, he freaked out and left when it came time to sing.

Despite the abrupt end of his first date with Jen, they married in 1996.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg decided to major in geography, a degree he completed in 1996, because it was the closest thing to disaster management. He also continued volunteering with the Red Cross, spending the summer after his freshman year attending disaster training and doing disaster work in California and Louisiana.

In 2001, he was named disaster services manager for the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter.

In 2003, he was offered the position as director of emergency and volunteer services for the American Red Cross of Ventura County.

Jen was willing to make the move as long as he agreed to take an Introduction to Judaism class.

The couple started observing more Jewish traditions, and Rosenberg found himself completely hooked when they began the class.

After being in New York after 9/11 through his Red Cross work, Rosenberg had felt like he needed more of a foundation in his life, something he found in the class.

“It was a connection to Jewish history that really spoke to me and made me feel like I was part of something bigger,” he said.

Rosenberg’s work with the Red Cross, through which he had responded to more than two dozen major disasters around the United States, was rewarding, but after a few Intro to Judaism classes, he found his calling as a rabbi.

He said, “I felt like the knowledge and skills I developed in the Red Cross, I could use to serve the Jewish community, serve my people.”

Rosenberg ultimately ended his work with the Red Cross in 2005, and he and Jen moved to Jerusalem the next year to think through becoming a rabbi and study Hebrew at an ulpan at the Conservative Yeshiva.

He began the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles in 2007.

Rosenberg’s most recent positions as student rabbi were with Surf City Synagogue in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Temple Beth Sholom, Menifee, Calif.

Rosenberg explained that officiating life cycle events has been the highlight of his rabbinic career so far.

“I appreciate bringing stability and comfort at times of difficulty, whether it’s times of joy or times of sadness,” he said.

Until Rosenberg attended a Hillel recruiting event his last year in rabbinic school, he planned on becoming a pulpit rabbi.

After learning of the impact he could make as a Hillel rabbi and talking with a Hillel executive about his background, Rosenberg knew he wanted to work for the organization.

He also knew he wanted to work at Texas A&M, where he could serve as a rabbi and continue to wear the nonprofit administration hat as executive director.

“Texas A&M is moving toward becoming a world class university and a vibrant dynamic Jewish population is part of that. With our new building and our visibility, and the headway that Rabbi Tarlow has made over the last 30 years, I felt like it was poised on the verge of moving into the next generation, and I wanted to be that catalyst,” Rosenberg said.

Since arriving in College Station this summer, Rosenberg has spent his time giving tours and meeting with students and faculty. He has also collaborated with Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff of Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Texas A&M University and Congregation Beth Shalom in Bryan.

He has additionally worked on fundraising, social media, coding for a new website, High Holiday logistics, building management and budgeting.

“It’s amazing and fascinating to drive 1,500 miles and show up in College Station and then suddenly be the rabbi for a community,” he said, explaining that he is the only full time non-Orthodox rabbi in a town where its Reform congregation does not hold services in the summer.

Rosenberg is also hard at work on Texas A&M’s Jewish future.

He explained that the school is the largest university in the country without a Jewish studies program, something he has set out to change. He has already met with faculty who are working on writing a Jewish studies certificate program and Rosenberg hopes to move into a Jewish studies minor and eventually a Jewish studies department.

Explaining that the university and its Hillel offer great leadership opportunities, Rosenberg said, “I want to make Texas A&M a destination for Texas Jews.”

For more information or tours, even UT grads, can reach Rabbi Matt via email at
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it . He can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter at @rabbimattr.

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