In 1973, armed with a theater degree from Temple University and a stellar first job as assistant to the managing director of a major university’s communication school, Shotsy Abramson applied for a position at Hillel at Arizona State University. “I interviewed with Rabbi (Barton) Lee and I was always very surprised that he chose me,” she says. “He had a vision and felt that anyone who could put on shows for thousands of people could put on Passover for 200 and High Holidays for 500.”
Abramson, who is retiring Jan. 31 after close to 40 years with Hillel, is being honored at a brunch Sunday, Jan. 26 (see details box).
Initially hired as the program coordinator, Abramson, who called herself at the time “not very religious,” suddenly found herself very involved in Judaism. She began “soaking up” all that she was learning on the job and from Lee, an opportunity she didn’t have as a girl growing up in Philadelphia, she says. “Our family didn’t consider it necessary for a girl to get a Jewish education,” she says. “I wish I’d had it.”
While working at Hillel, Abramson and her husband, Marty, became founding members of Temple Emanuel of Tempe in 1976. “I remember our first fundraiser,” she says. “It was a cooperative dinner. We raised $1,000 – enough to do a mailing.” Abramson taught religious school and confirmation classes at Temple Emanuel for many years and celebrated her adult bat mitzvah there.
After giving birth to her first child, Susan, in 1977, Abramson whittled down her schedule to part-time. In 1979, when son Robert was born, she quit working at Hillel. “But Rabbi Lee put me on the board of directors, so I never really left,” she says.
In 1986, Abramson received a call from Hillel asking if she could come in and write payroll a couple of times a week. The job grew and every month she’d add a couple of hours. “Before I knew it I was working 50 hours a week,” she says. Eventually, she became assistant director and had a hand in payroll, building maintenance, insurance, programming, fundraisers and supervising program staff. “Rabbi Lee and I did everything,” including moving tables and chairs, custodial work, publicity and cooking for holidays. “We created our own prayer book.”
Some of Abramson’s fondest memories include directing the Hillel Players, an acting troupe that performed at various Jewish venues around Phoenix. “I felt this was an interesting way to bring people into Hillel,” she says. “Sometimes you have to interest them through the back door.” Food is another way to interest students, she says,“which is one of my favorite ways.”
Many of Abramson’s Hillel highlights revolve around cooking for and feeding students. In particular, she recalls the many seders in the desert at South Mountain and cooking in the kitchen when Hillel was housed in the First United Methodist Church of Tempe on University Drive.
What will she miss about Hillel? “I’ll miss being around young people. When you do this kind of work, you have a Peter Pan complex – you’re young forever,” she says. “I listen to the craziest radio stations because I like to be up on the latest music. ... It’s just so fun talking to (the students) and you stay relevant when you’re around young people.”
But she has plenty of activities planned for her retirement. “My husband has recently retired and would like company,” she says. They plan on traveling back East to visit family, take a trip to Israel and possibly South Africa. “The biggest news is I’m going to be a grandmother for the first time in July.” Both of her children are married and live in the Valley, and she plans on spending more time with them as well.
Other plans include volunteering at Hillel. “I’ve already volunteered to do a few things. I’m not a good leaver,” she says. “My husband and I call it a leaving disorder. I don’t even leave my own house well.”
Who: Hillel at Arizona State University
What: Retirement brunch for Shotsy Abramson
When: 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 26
Where: The Turquoise Room in ASU’s Memorial Union, Tempe
Cost: Donation to Shotsy Abramson Fund, information at hillelasu.org
Register: Rebecca, 480-967-7563