Rabbi Joe served as a Hillel Director for 40 years, first at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1979 to 1982 and then at Stony Brook University from 1982 to 2019. During his tenure at Stony Brook he oversaw the growth of Hillel to more than double the number of professional staff and reach hundreds more students, and the construction of the Gloria and Mark Snyder Hillel Center. He served as Chairperson of the Interfaith Center from 1989 to 2019 and is the recipient of the Sister Margaret Ann Landry Lifetime Achievement Award in Advising and the Shirley Strum Kenny Steel Magnolia Award. Rabbi Joe continues to serve part time in Stony Brook Medicine as the Jewish Chaplain at the Long Island State Veterans Home, a post he has held since 1994.
He has a BA in Humanities/Judaic Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, an MA in Contemporary Jewish Studies and Jewish Communal Service from Brandeis University, and Rabbinic Ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. Rabbi Joe's area of academic interest is American Jewish military history, a subject on which he has lectured and published extensively. He has lectured for the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, the Jewish Museum, the New York Jewish Historical Society, and many others.
His wife, Susan Remick Topek, is a retired Early Childhood Education specialist at the Jewish Education Project and the author of seven Jewish children's books. They have three married daughters and six grandchildren.
Since first being founded in 1923, Hillel's goal has been to provide college students with the means to connect with the Jewish culture, traditions and values. Today, we are delighted to be largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Hilel gives students the opportunity to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity at over 500 campuses worldwide, and we're constantly striving to further extend our reach.
In 1957 the State University of New York opened the SUNY College at Long Island at the Planting Fields estate in Oyster Bay. For the next five years this location would serve as the nucleus of what would become a major research university. With only a few hundred students the college awaited the completion of the new campus under construction in Stony Brook. In 1962 the first buildings were ready and the Stony Brook campus opened. New students and faculty poured into the campus, which had a central academic core, a library, and two residential quadrangles.
By 1964 a Jewish Student Organization was established and programs were held in the H Quad faculty dining room and other locations. Local synagogues, the North Shore Jewish Center, then located in East Setauket, and Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, offered some services to students, and local Bnai Brith leaders began to organize a support network. It was clear that a major university was developing and that soon thousands of students and faculty would begin to arrive and many of them would be Jewish. Since Bnai Brith, which was an international Jewish service organization, sponsored the Hillel movement at the time, Long Islands lodges and chapters swung into action.
In 1966 the Friends of Hillel at Stony Brook was founded by Dr. Meyer Mehlman, a Smithtown dentist, Leonard Sonnenberg, the owner of a chemical company, and Julian Silverman, a Lake Grove businessman. They soon formed a board of Bnai Brith representatives from across Long Island in order to provide financial support for a Hillel program at Stony Brook and to purchase a Hillel House. In 1967 they succeeded in acquiring the property at 75 Sheep Pasture Road, which was directly across from the North Entrance to campus and a short walk from the original residential quads.
At that time the University did not permit religious services to be held on campus, although social and cultural gatherings were allowed. Hillel, as well as other campus religious groups, held services off campus and students continued to be welcomed by the local synagogues, including the newly organized Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook. The late 1960s were also a time of continued physical growth for the campus. As new residential quads and academic buildings opened, the campus grew to the west and the south, placing more students further away from the Hillel House and other off campus facilities.
In 1967 the Bnai Brith Hillel Foundations established the Hillel Counselorship at Stony Brook and appointed Rabbi Elliot Spar of Temple Beth Sholom as the first Hillel Counselor. Counselors typically served smaller campuses or those with fewer Jewish students than a full fledged Hillel Foundation. The Friends of Hillel organization, along with a young physics professor named Peter Kahn, became leading advocates for the needs of Jewish students at Stony Brook. Rabbi Spar had an office in the Hillel House, and services were held there on a regular basis, although a single family dwelling hardly sufficed for the needs of a growing Jewish student body. By 1972 the community had advocated for Jewish studies courses, so Judaic scholar Rabbi Dr. David Sperling was engaged to both teach University courses and serve as the Hillel Counselor.
Meanwhile the University had been experiencing dramatic growth both in its physical plant as well asin the size of the student body and the faculty. Hundreds of faculty had been hired and thousands of new students were being housed in quads that had been built in a semicircular ring around the academic mall. During this period American society was also experiencing political and cultural upheaval and college campuses were at the center of the action. Students experimented with alternative lifestyles, protested the war in Vietnam, and worked for civil rights. Stony Brook was often referred to as the Berkeley of the East, and had gained a reputation as a campus with a lively political culture as well as being pockmarked by large gaping holes and fields of deep mud from the many campus construction projects. Drawn from the greater New York City area, many of Stony Brooks students were the children and grandchildren of its immigrant neighborhoods, and some were the first generation in their family to attend college. Simultaneously, the University built strong graduate and research programs that reached out to students from across the United States and many foreign countries. As the demographics of New Yorks ethnic neighborhoods changed, and college education was sought by new communities, Stony Brooks student body grew more ethnically diverse.
By 1974 Stony Brooks Jewish population had grown such that a full time director was needed. The Hillel Counselorship was upgraded to a full fledged Hillel Foundation and Richard Siegel was hired as its director. Siegel was already well known in the Jewish community, held an advanced degree in Jewish Studies from Brandeis University and was a co-author of the popular Jewish Catalogue, which was a groundbreaking new generation Jewish version of the popular Whole Earth Catalogue. Siegel brought his penchant for the arts to Stony Brook and founded the Jewish Arts Festival, which was sponsored by Hillel for the first several years of its existence and held on campus. During the four years that Siegel served as Director, Jewish student leadership structures were strengthened and the Interfaith Center was founded. A decision by the New York State Attorney General enabled religious services to be held on campus and a coalition of organizations serving Stony Brook students became the Centers founding members.
In 1978 Rabbi Alan Flam was appointed as the Hillel Director when Richard Siegel left for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Flam was the first full time rabbi to serve Stony Brook and established permanent High Holiday services that continue to this day. He also brought a formerly student run cooperative for kosher dining under the auspices of University Dining Services with more consistent rabbinical supervision, and was instrumental in aiding Iranian Jewish students trapped in the U.S. after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Flam also built a stronger relationship with the Jewish federation in New York (now UJA-Federation) through its then college service agency, the Jewish Association for College Youth (JACY). This resulted in a full time JACY outreach worker being assigned to Stony Brook, a position that later became Program Director.
In 1982 Rabbi Flam was appointed Hillel Director at Brown University and Rabbi Joseph Topek was appointed Director at Stony Brook. Topek had served as Hillel Director at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia since 1979. The old Hillel House had not been used for programming since the establishment of the Interfaith Center, and the Friends of Hillel board decided it would best be used as a parsonage. It was partially renovated in 1982 and has served that function ever sense, housing the director and his family and also serving as a location for countless Shabbat lunches, Passover seders, Yom Kippur break-fasts, Simchat Torah parties, and challah and hamantashen baking sessions.
The early 1980s also saw the first re-organization of Hillels lay leadership with the merger of its Faculty Advisory Board, which had been led by Professors Peter Kahn and Mort Shakun, with the Friends of Hillel board. Dr. Meyer Mehlman continued as President and Julian Silverman served diligently as Treasurer for over 20 years. During this period the JACY agency merged with Hillel and became a New York regional center for all of the campuses within the UJA-Federation area. This unified staff services and created a permanent position for a program professional. Dr. Robert Goldenberg, the Director of the Program in Judaic Studies, assumed the presidency of the board. This period also saw an increase in Soviet Jewry activity as the Soviet Union first opened and then closed its doors to the exodus of its Jewish population. Stony Brook students were actively involved in this movement, sending busloads of students to protest at the Soviet mission to the United Nations in Manhattan as well as to a massive national protest rally on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington. Students also countered the few anti-Israel programs that occasionally came to campus with a plethora of strongly pro-Israel activities that reflected the breadth of opinion within the Jewish community and in Israel as well. Each year visiting faculty from Ben Gurion University would come to Stony Brook through an exchange program under the leadership of Dr. Peter Kahn, then Chair of the Physics Department, many of whom became actively involved with students.
The 1970s and 80s also saw a deep cultivation of relations between Jewish faculty and Jewish students. Stony Brook has always been blessed with a talented faculty, many of whom care deeply about their students. In 1983 a popular informal Shabbat afternoon program was instituted called the Shabbat Shmooz that featured a Jewish faculty member shmoozing on a topic of his or her choosing. These talks ranged from personal stories to academic papers in the shmoozers field, but each one enabled students to become better acquainted with a Jewish faculty member whose personal story was interesting and moving. Several early faculty members at Stony Brook were European born Jews who had fled the Nazis and found refuge in America and its academic institutions. Their stories of sometimes harrowing escapes, lost family members, and then successful academic careers were inspiring. In recent years the Hillel student board has established the Hakarat Hatov award, which is presented annually to a faculty member who makes extraordinary contributions to Jewish student life. Some of its recipients have been Dr. David Ebin, Dr. Jerrold Stein, and Dr. Manuel London. Faculty members also assumed a much larger role in the governance of Hillel by serving on its Board of Directors. Outstanding faculty leaders who succeeded Dr. Robert Goldenberg as President were Dr. Ira Rezak (Medicine), Dr. Paul Jay Edelson (Dean, School of Professional Development), and Dr. Manuel London (Associate Provost). The current President is an alumnus of Stony Brook, Mark J. Snyder 69.
As American Jewish life has changed, so has the Hillel movement. The late 20th century saw the decline of some of the older Jewish fraternal organizations and the pre-eminence of the Jewish federations. In the late 1980s Hillel began to establish its independence from Bnai Brith, which had founded and nurtured Hillels for over 60 years. Richard Joel, currently President of Yeshiva University, was appointed as International Director, and later President of Hillel, and a major transformation took place. Under Joels leadership several prominent Jewish philanthropists became involved in Hillel on an international level and a major expansion was undertaken. Part of the transformation of Hillel nationally was the establishment of standards and evaluations for Hillel foundations and accreditation of those meeting the requirements. Stony Brook Hillel was first accredited in 1994, and one result of the evaluation was the recognition that while programs for involved students were excellent, more needed to be done to reach the uninvolved. Simultaneously, Jewish federations made a much stronger commitment to fund programs for college students, often infusing local Hillels with additional support. Stony Brook received its first major grant in 1995 from UJA-Federation of New York to enable the establishment of an outreach and engagement program. This enabled Hillel to hire a full time staff member to focus on engagement work, which resulted in many more freshmen becoming involved in Jewish life, a significant increase in Jewish programming in the residence halls, a Hillel presence in the Health Sciences Center, and our first campus-based trip to Israel.
A second result of the accreditation process was the increasingly clear challenge of Hillels space requirements. The Interfaith Center was still in its original space dating to 1975 when it was temporarily located in a back wing of the Humanities Building. Plans were already being developed for a new Student Activities Center which would supplement the existing Stony Brook Union as a locale for campus life. Then Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Frederick Preston envisioned the Union becoming a center for student life that would incorporate important campus departments like the Interfaith Center. Plans were developed and space identified and in 1998 each of the campus religious groups launched its own capital campaign for our new home. Hillels new center would include staff offices, a living room for students, a reception area, and a resource room that would contain Hillels book and film library as well as computers for student use. The new Interfaith Center would also have a Chapel and Multipurpose room as well as public lounge spaces. Hillel also began plans with the Faculty Student Association to relocate the kosher dining program to the Center so that all of Jewish life would be brought together under one roof.
Religious life on campus has changed over the years as well. Hillel maintains its commitment to Jewish pluralism by being home to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox services and also houses the Stony Brook Hebrew Congregation, a faculty/community Orthodox minyan. Hillels Tons of Love community service program clocks the time students devote to this effort, now in the thousands of hours, of service to nursing homes, soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, and hospitalized children. Generations of empowered Jewish students have devoted their own time and energy to building a campus Jewish community they can be proud of. In any one year, up to 10 different Jewish student interest groups are affiliated with Hillel, receiving guidance and support from the staff and focusing on Israel, Jewish women, graduate students, and other activities. Chabad has also provided Jewish programming for students since the 1970s, and became a member of the Interfaith Center in 2003. The efforts of Hillels student leaders have been recognized with a number of prestigious program awards including Program of the Year and Campus Life awards from the University, four Program of the Year Awards from the Hillels of New York, and International Hillels William Haber Award in 1993. Student program initiatives have also received several important grants including four awards from Hillels Jacob Burns Endowment in Jewish Ethics.
With the generosity of many donors, including Gloria 72 and Mark 69 Snyder, whose gift named the new Hillel Center, the doors of Phase I were opened in the fall of 2000. Delancey Street, the new kosher dining facility (Phase II), opened in the fall of 2005 on the first floor of the building. Now there would be a true home away from home for Jewish students and facilities adequate for the needs of the community for worship, kosher dining, meeting, and planning. The newly expanded Interfaith Center also enabled greater cooperation between campus religious groups as well as partnering with the University on important programs such as the annual Festival of Lights, the Interfaith Center Thanksgiving Dinner, and the annual September 11 Commemoration to honor the memory of 22 Stony Brook alumni who perished that day. The Gloria and Mark Snyder Hillel Center is a busy facility that is the focal point for Jewish life at Stony Brook.
Hillels commitment to outreach and engagement has continued with its participation in the international Hillel Jewish Campus Service Corps program which places a Steinhardt Fellow on campus each year. With an ongoing commitment from the CAMBR Charitable Foundation, hundreds of Jewish students have been reached in residence halls, at information tables, fairs, welcome wagons, and other non-standard venues. In 2005 the program was augmented with a peer engagement initiative called Jewish Life Liaisons (JiLLs) where undergraduate students serve as outreach interns and bring Jewish programming to the farthest corners of the campus. When birthright israel was established Stony Brook was one of the first Hillels to sponsor its own campus-based trip, based on its success in earlier Israel trips for students. The birthright program has enabled hundreds of Stony Brook students to experience Israel for the first time, and the impact has been palpable. Many have been inspired to become more immersed in Jewish life when they return, and some have planned second and third trips to Israel to deepen their experience.
The 21st century brings new challenges to Hillel as well as many new opportunities. National Hillel studies of Jewish college students have helped Stony Brook Hillel focus its efforts on reaching more students and improving the quality of Jewish life on campus. While Stony Brook Hillel was re-accredited in 2005, and today enjoys occupying the Gloria and Mark Snyder Hillel Center, there are still many ways in which Jewish life on campus needs to grow. The newly released National Hillel Strategic Plan challenges us to double of the number of Jewish students having a meaningful Jewish experience, a challenge that Stony Brook has embraced. By partnering with other campus organizations and departments, and by using creative marketing tools, Stony Brook Hillel is facing this challenge and using it as an opportunity to reach students who have not participated in Jewish life. Simultaneously, Hillel empowers Jewish student leaders to shape their own community and invests in their training through programs like the Jewish Student Leadership Institute.
Stony Brook Hillel has a rich legacy of serving the Jewish community at a unique and outstanding institution of higher learning. The challenges have been many, but with the energy and commitment of wonderful lay leaders, dedicated professionals, generous donors, the Schusterman Hillel International Center, UJA-Federation, Stony Brook University, and thousands of brilliant and creative students, Jewish life here has truly been something to be proud of. May the next 50 years be as fulfilling as the first 50.