This year, Hillel of San Diego’s Executive Director Jackie Tolley will retire from the organization after serving the Jewish student community for 40 years. In that time, she has touched numerous lives and helped to foster many generations of Jewish leaders. Former students, including this author, remember their college days spent at Hillel for Shabbat dinners and programming fondly; many times because of Tolley’s tireless efforts and dedication to the students who came to Hillel.
In her time with Hillel, Tolley has led Shabbat and High Holiday services; taught B’nai Mitzvah classes; held lunch and learn sessions with students; helped to organize Mitzvah Day programs; and chaperoned Birthright trips to Israel and Alternative Spring Break Programming in areas like New Orleans and Mexico, in addition to being a valuable resource for Jewish students learning how to incorporate Judaism into their daily lives. Her lasting impact can be felt in the hundreds of students she still keeps in touch with after their time at SDSU has commenced. She has had the pleasure of not only attending but officiating the weddings of former students, and has been a guest at the baby namings and brit milahs of their children.
Here, we talked with Tolley about her years of service to the Jewish community.
L’CHAIM Magazine: Let’s start with what brought you to San Diego and to Hillel in the beginning.
Jackie Tolley: The Jewish community was a very different place in San Diego in the 1970s. We moved into town in July of 1977, and there were far fewer synagogues, agencies and organizations serving the community than there are today. It’s hard to even compare.
We moved to San Diego because my husband got a job with what was then the United Jewish Federation, and I was looking for a teaching job. I had 5 years of classroom experience [which I wanted to build on], and we moved into town the same month that [Federation] hired the first full time professional to work on campus. I had not had a Jewish communal background whatsoever, but by January of that year, the Federation had purchased a small house on Montezuma Road to be used as a program space for Jewish students at San Diego State University.
I was hired to keep the building open and to help whomever walked in the door, so that is how I was introduced to campus work. I really expected to do it just until I found a full-time teaching job, but one thing led to another and the job really dovetailed on my personal and professional interests. I got to work with a lot of individuals, groups, and [provide] informal teachings, and things developed from there.
L’CHAIM: How has the leadership at Hillel changed since you started with the organization?
JT: Most Hillel directors when I started with the organization were rabbis and at the time, there were just starting to be larger staff and more women in leadership roles. That has continued to develop, and we always have tried to have a diverse staff that reflects the Jewish community we serve.
In the general Jewish community, we see a decrease in people who are affiliated with more traditional forms of Jewish expression; whether that is attending synagogues, keeping kosher, or otherwise. That being said, I think that when you have someone in a leadership position who is not a rabbi, that also sends a message that one doesn’t have to be a rabbi to take Judaism and the Jewish community seriously.
That was a role that I always tried to play. I loved the rabbis that I worked with, and I would have loved to have the level of education and knowledge that a rabbi brings to an organization to have been something we had at SDSU, but it is also important for Hillel staff, whoever they are to be able to show that being Jewish is important [to them], Judaism can enhance someone’s life and that they can show that [to the student population].
L’CHAIM: In terms of the changing landscape Jews have faced in the past 40 years, how has Hillel been able to adapt to their needs? How will it serve students in the future?
JT: Hillel is a pluralistic environment and is a safe space where people can talk about issues and know that they are not going to be judged if they have issues that are different from what they perceive the mainstream to be. As long as people are respectful in how they articulate themselves, we want them to feel that this is a place where they can explore all types of issues, from identity issues to world issues.
That is something that is really constant and important in terms of why Hillel is here. We have always been there for students on their Jewish journey, but you can’t separate that from the rest of their lives, so we often talk about personal issues as well. Judaism is life, it is living, really; so, there is no way to separate the Jewish experience from living your life. We are here to help create the opportunity for students to figure out what living their life looks like, whether they come from a strong Jewish background or not.
For me, being able to help students figure out how to live their own Jewish lives — separate from their upbringing — after college is part of the most important work.
L’CHAIM: What does your future look like?
JT: Well, I am working on being present until the end of the school year, but on July 1, you will have to ask me again! I think that having spent 40 years with Jewish Holidays and Shabbats at Hillel, it will be nice to spend some time with my family, not that they have been short-changed. I think I will likely try and find some volunteer work that is meaningful, but I can’t see myself sitting on a board — I’ve sat through enough meetings in my lifetime!
I can honestly say that I am retiring from Hillel, but I don’t like the word “retired,” because I want to continue to do lots of different things, and it is nice to have the flexibility of time to figure out what some of those things are.
Jackie Tolley will be an honoree at this year’s Campus Superstar program 5:30 p.m., March 18 at Scripps Auditorium. To learn more, visit hillelsd.org.