It's difficult to imagine, but Hillel at Arizona State University might have only known Rabbi Barton Lee for a few years. The local nonprofit's first and only full-time rabbi, and executive director for the last 39 years, could have just as easily been a community staple at University of California, Los Angeles.
Lee's first day of employment at ASU Hillel was Aug. 1, 1972, the same day his wife, Marcie, began work as a receptionist at UCLA Hillel. They didn't know each other at the time.
Several years later, when the couple decided to marry, they discussed whether to both work in Los Angeles or Tempe. They decided on Tempe because, says Marcie, "I was ready for a change." She moved here in September 1976.
Now, after nearly four decades on the job, Rabbi Lee, 68, is looking to change roles. He's not leaving the organization, but wants to step down as the executive director and become senior Jewish educator, a position he says Hillel is experimenting with at a number of colleges across the country.
Senior Jewish educator, Lee says, is similar to his current job, "but it's a smaller piece of it." It would allow him to focus on working with and educating students Jewishly, which he loves to do, while at the same time stepping back from running the entire organization.
"There are a lot of things that have to be done (besides teaching Judaism and working with students), and it takes a lot of energy because in some ways they're things I don't have training for," says Lee. "I have no training in public relations and publicity. Those kinds of things, I think, can profit from new energy and new concepts on how to do things."
Ken Smith, Hillel president, is leading the search for a new executive director.
"It's going to be very difficult to replace Barton," says Smith. "He's been there almost 40 years, and I don't think we'll come up with someone of that caliber, but hopefully we'll find somebody to take us to that next step."
Both Smith and Lee say that if the right match is made, the transition will ideally take place in the summer of 2011. But Lee is quick to add, "If that time frame weren't to work out, I'm not slamming the door behind me and running away, so we have flexibility."
The specifics of his new role, says Lee, are yet to be set in stone, because much of that depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the new hire. As of now, he says, he plans on continuing to lead religious services, but if the next executive director ends up also being a rabbi, "we would have to talk about things."
"My idea is to be focused nar rowly, but broadly flexible," he says, and ensures that regardless of his role, student events that are often conducted at his house - such as Shabbat services and dinners in his sukkah - will continue to be held there.
And, says Lee, the switch does not necessarily mean that retirement is looming in the not-so-distant future. "God willing, as long as I have health and the ability to be a part of the lives of college students in a productive fashion, I'd like to do it."
ASU Hillel Assistant Director Shotsy Abramson joined the staff in 1973, a year after Rabbi Lee - when she started, she and Lee were the entire operation.
"I've seen (the rabbi) grow to understand how to attract students," she says. "When he was a really young rabbi, we had a lot of intellectual programs. ... We used to tease him a little bit about how hard it was to get a social program. But that evolved. He dropped a little of this and added a little of that, to the point where he grew very happy to have programs of a social nature to draw the students in.
"I've really felt that he's been a rabbi for all times. He's kept his edge and he's always put students first."
Lee's wife, Marcie, agrees with Abramson.
"(Barton) asked me when he was young, 'Will kids still be able to relate to me when my hair is gray?'" she recalls. "I remember saying, 'It will have nothing to do with the color of your hair. They'll relate to you like they relate to you now.' I have found that to be the case, whether his hair has been brown, gray or white, and it has been all of those. During periods when he's walked with a walker or cane, there's been no difference. ... (The students) just carry his bag if he's having trouble walking."
Ironically, despite all of his success in his decades at Hillel, Lee never intended to become a campus rabbi.
"A funny thing happened to me on the way to a big congregation: I ended up at ASU," he says. "I don't know whether it was divine intervention, but at the very least it was a great piece of luck, because not only did I end up being happy with my lot, I ended up doing work that I have loved doing and I believe is critical and challenging. So, what I'm eager to do now is to continue that work in a different way."
To give your input to Hillel regarding the search for the next executive director, or to make other suggestions, contact Ken Smith at email@example.com.