New S.F. Hillel head eyes conflict resolution

Seth Brysk remembers reading about clashes between African-American and Jewish students at San Francisco State University when he was a student at U.C. Berkeley in the late '80s and early '90s.

Now armed with a master's degree in international relations with an emphasis in conflict resolution from Tel Aviv University, Brysk will take his own skills to SFSU as the new director of San Francisco Hillel.

He expects a far more peaceful campus, however.

Brysk is typical of "a new breed of Hillel professionals," said Richard M. Joel, Hillel national president and international director. He brings a "broad and varied range of skills and experience" to the directorship, Joel said, including not only conflict resolution but an extensive array of Jewish experience.

The 30-year-old Southern California transplant majored in political science and minored in Hebrew at U.C. Berkeley. Brysk, whose connection to Judaism has largely been through Israel and Zionism, made aliyah in 1994. But he came back to the United States to help others find a connection to their heritage.

"I'd like to inspire students to seek out new ways of connecting to their Jewish roots," said Brysk, who has dual citizenship. "For some people, that won't necessarily mean going to synagogue. Some people are looking for aspects of culture, real-world experiences they can connect to, and for those people, it's good to see someone who looks like them."

Changing times, he said, will make his job in the Bay Area easier. The tensions at SFSU that occasionally pitted Jewish students against black and Palestinian students have largely subsided, he observed.

"In the last few years the international political scene has shifted to a more peaceful orientation. Those [campus-based] problems really no longer exist. And we are reaching out to other groups. Things are good now and we want to build on that."

Fresh out of his combat fatigues — Brysk recently completed his compulsory stint in the Israel Defense Force — he is ready for the admittedly daunting challenge of overseeing programs at SFSU, University of San Francisco, Hastings College of the Law, and City College of San Francisco.

The prospect of meeting the needs of thousands of students who commute to the campuses from throughout the Bay Area is "a great challenge," Brysk said. "But that's largely why I took the job. I thought it would be an exciting challenge."

Since classes begin within days, "our focus right now is on welcoming students," he said.

He already negotiated with area synagogues to provide students with discount-priced tickets for High Holy Days services.

"I've been assured no one will be turned away anywhere due to lack of funds," he said.

He will be hosting two Shabbat dinners each month and some cooperative activities between Hillel and Jewish studies departments at both SFSU and USF.

"The faculty is very enthusiastic, very interested in being involved with Hillel," he said. "I hope to influence students to explore all of the opportunities available to them, especially in the Jewish world. I hope to inspire them."

Brysk's own background is rich. He served as president and executive director of Habonim-Dror North America, a Labor Zionist youth movement with active memberships in 20 countries.

He also worked closely with Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a leader in the modern Orthodox movement, at the Jewish Life Network. The New York-based organization develops educational programs for underserved segments of the Jewish population and funds Jewish day schools in communities that have never had them.

Happy to be back in the Bay Area, Brysk says he's enjoying the diversity within the Jewish community as well as the religious and ethnic variety within the greater community.

Officials at the Jesuit USF have already reached out to Brysk, eager to accommodate their Jewish student population.

When he met with Maureen Pryor, executive director of the ministry at USF, she showed him a favorite quote by survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, which she said summarized her own sense of faith: "The search for truth shouldn't hurt anyone. It should elevate us, not separate us."

Brysk was moved by this "example of our commonality." "I put it up on my bulletin board immediately," he said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.