When Debbie Yunker Kail was named the new executive director of Hillel at Arizona State University in 2013, the organization had not had a new leader since 1972.
At the time, Yunker Kail was the associate director of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, and it’s not an exaggeration to say Hillel has played a major role in her life. Before arriving at ASU, she already had worked at college campuses for 10 years — beginning with Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis in 2002. By 2012, she had completed Weinberg Accelerate: Hillel’s Executive Training Program, which prepares individuals to become Hillel directors.
A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Yunker Kail has done much to energize Jewish students at ASU by instituting new initiatives and programs. Meanwhile, her profile in the community continues to rise. In July, she was named president of the Council of Religious Advisors at ASU’s Tempe campus.
While Hillel has been part of her life since her college student days, Yunker Kail is also a wife and mother who works hard to find that elusive work-life balance.
What drew you to Hillel as a student?
When I was at Emory University, I met someone who worked at the Hillel there. She took me to lunch sometimes and we got to know each other.
While I did go to Shabbat services occasionally, I only went if a friend was free. We didn’t really feel a part of the community aside from our friendship with this Hillel staff member.
My involvement in Hillel was more about my personal interests; I served as a representative from my sorority to a Jewish Greek Council, I took a Kabbalah class with the campus rabbi and I went on the Birthright Israel trip with a few friends from my sorority.
I was a senior during 9/11. I lived a plane ride away from college, and my world changed. Having these connections gave me a place to start processing what had happened. I remember not feeling like I could explain how I felt, just knowing I needed to be in a Jewish prayer space.
How did Hillel become your chosen career path?
I love telling the story about how I got my first Hillel job. My best friend and I were at the campus mailboxes and we both got letters from a Hillel staff member at the University of Georgia.
The letter explained that there was a special Hillel fellowship for graduating seniors to work at a Hillel for one to two years trying to help uninvolved students connect to Jewish life.
My friend threw her letter away — and I called the Hillel program director to get more info! She encouraged me to apply and through that process I understood that my interest and experience in customizing my Jewish involvement had given me the basic tools to help others do the same.
Plus, I realized that I could use my psychology major and religion minor in my job.
I will admit that when I took that first job, it seemed more like a fun thing to do after college than the start of a career. I had amazing mentors at St. Louis Hillel; staff at the Hillel as well as student affairs administrators and board members who really listened to me and helped me see that working in student affairs and Hillel could be a career.
I remember the vice president of Student Affairs at Washington University took me to lunch at the nice faculty restaurant. It felt like such a big deal — I was probably 22 or 23 and this woman was spending a whole meal with me!
I went on to pursue a graduate degree in student affairs and I only learned that this was a possible path through these mentors.
What’s the best part of your job?
I have a front-row seat and a guest role in the future of American Judaism. In working with students and with my staff, I am constantly learning about the changing needs of young adults and how Judaism remains relevant. There is a lot in the media that can cause us to worry about challenges on campus, about apathy amongst young adults, about the disappearing Jewish community.
And yet from where I sit, the future is bright and filled with amazing, passionate people who may be Jewish in different or non-traditional ways, but who will shape the future of what it means to be Jewish in America.
Plus, you can’t beat the variety in my job. In an average day, I can support a staff member, mentor a student, order parts for a sukkah, review a budget report, plan our fundraiser and engage with a supporter of our work. And that was just today!
I love how Hillel work stretches us all to use a variety of skill sets each day.
What do you do in you free time?
Right now my hobbies include trying to learn the words to “Moana” and playing with Play-Doh. Most of my free time is spent with my family — my husband, Ben, and son, Gabe.
I also love to cook, work out, read and binge watch “Scandal.”
What do you enjoy most about living in Phoenix?
I love seeing mountains every day when I wake up and when I drive around.
Describe your perfect day off.
The perfect day off varies for me depending on what’s going on in my life, but usually it involves a delicious breakfast, swimming or playing in a splash pad and a nap. A babysitter at night so my husband and I can grab a quiet dinner out would be great, too!
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully I will be continuing to make a difference in the lives of young Jews. JN