Hillel at Arizona State University is beginning a search for an executive director after Rabbi Barton Lee stepped out of that role this semester, according to Rachel Passon, Hillel's president.

For the rabbi, who has worked at ASU Hillel since 1972, a new two-year contract he negotiated with the Hillel board completes a transition - from the chief executive role to the student organization's part-time rabbi - that he first announced two years ago (" 'A rabbi for all times,' " Jewish News, Sept. 24, 2010).

"(It is) the position that he's been wanting for a while - serving the students, hanging out with them, serving as their spiritual guide," Passon told Jewish News.

"I'm pleased to be working with the students, and to have that as my portfolio is really very nice," Rabbi Lee told Jewish News.

The ASU Hillel board is working with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the international umbrella organization with which ASU Hillel is affiliated, as it begins the process of seeking a new director.

"Hillel International is guiding us through the steps of searching for a director, and the first step will be some focus groups for getting input regarding what kind of director we're looking for," Passon said. "We have our own ideas about that, but we also want to be informed by students and other stakeholders."

Asked what the board would like, she said, "We need a strong forward-thinking director with some previous experience, who knows how to run an organization in this day and age," adding that networking ability would be an important strength.

"We're hoping to be prepared to post the job in January," she said, and to have a director in place for the 2013-2014 school year at the very latest, and potentially during the current school year depending on funding and how quickly the search is completed. She wrote in an email that the plan is to make an immediate fundraising push and to launch the focus groups in October. "We'd like to raise $200,000 towards this effort so that a new director would be able to come in on solid footing and focus on quality programming, outreach and campus collaboration rather than funding issues right away," she wrote.

In the meantime, ASU Hillel's full-time staff and a corps of student leaders are programming the fall semester, she told Jewish News.

"They're doing a nice job, and the communication among the staff and board is solid," Passon said. "We're working together to get through this interim time."

About 3,600 Jewish students are enrolled at ASU, representing about 5 percent of the student population, according to figures from Hillel. Hillel provides a place for those students to gather with other Jews, have Shabbat dinner and learn Jewish answers to life's questions. Programming includes speakers of Jewish interest and High Holidays services, as well as Birthright Israel trips. Hillel's work also includes advocating for Jewish students on campus, whether in the face of anti-Semitism or in promoting students' involvement in tikkun olam efforts.

For instance, this week Hillel plans to celebrate Shabbat at ASU's downtown Phoenix campus, with Tempe-based students taking the campus shuttle to the Phoenix site, said Jennifer Williams, administrative assistant at ASU Hillel.

"The numbers for attendance this fall are up," Passon said. Typically, attendance falls off after the first few weeks, she said, but it has been consistent to this point in the semester.

About 75 students came to Hillel's welcoming event at the beginning of the semester and regular attendance has been about 45, said Williams. A women's group has doubled since last year to 16, more than half of them new students, she said. Game night attracted 20 students, she said.

In addition, nine students are participating in the Parking Scholars program, in which students work at the Hillel office in return for a parking space in Hillel's lot. "That's more than we've ever had," she said.

Passon said that the board doesn't plan to make any changes before a new director is aboard.

"We're not going to change things," she said. "We're going to honor the new director, who will have ideas on how to increase our outreach and continue to grow our program that Rabbi Lee grew for 40 years to what it is now."

The rabbi, who has been the face of ASU Hillel through those many years, wrote about his new status in an email to Jewish News: "My hours are reduced, so I will have some extra time for reading, writing, and, heaven help me, the gym.

"In some ways, I am returning to the essence of the 'rabbi job' I did when I got here years ago. I am no long responsible for the administrative aspects of Hillel, a part of the work as executive director which continued to grow and grow over the years. My new position is made possible by generous gifts by Ms. Jean Grossman, the late Ken Smith and an anonymous donor. They all understand that Jewish learning and experience are critical to connecting Jewish students to Judaism and that Jewish learning is the key to the future of Jewish life in the USA."

In a subsequent conversation with Jewish News, he was asked if he planned to retire when his two-year contract was up. "Let's get through two years first," he said.

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