As a new semester begins at Stony Brook University, one Setauket resident has retirement on his mind.
Rabbi Joseph Topek, 64, director of the university’s Hillel, announced he will be stepping down as director in July after 37 years of serving in the position. The rabbi, who specializes in American Jewish history, specifically Jewish-American military history, said he is working on a few research projects, including one about the 2023 centennial of the Hillel Movement, and he thought the time had come for someone else to lead the Stony Brook Hillel.
After a stint in Virginia Commonwealth University, Topek said he arrived at SBU looking for a different setting and new challenges, and he wasn’t expecting to stay more than a few years.
“This has been in many ways a uniquely satisfying and fulfilling career because universities are unique institutions,” he said.
Topek said Hillels are centers for Jewish life on college campuses. At Stony Brook, students can try out different expressions of the faith such as experimenting with how to celebrate holidays or the Sabbath. He said the group also explores and discusses aspects of Jewish life that other institutions within the faith may be hesitant to touch, such as Israel and gender identity in the community.
The rabbi said he felt it was a privilege to have the responsibility and opportunity to provide students with an adult foundation that incorporated their heritage and religious teachings.
“We’re part of the Jewish community that says here are people that are on the cusp of adulthood, who are young adults and who are looking for ways in which to live their lives as Jews in a meaningful way while they are in this big institution of higher education,” he said.
Robert Presser, a graduate student at SBU, met Topek when he was just a freshman.
“One of the things I admire most about the rabbi is that he is so knowledgeable about so many different things,” Presser said, adding he admires the rabbi’s expertise on Jewish-American history.
The grad student said he regularly asks Topek questions at the weekly Shabbat meal the organization holds, and he’s glad he’ll be graduating the same time Topek is retiring.
“I don’t have to live in a world where I’m going to be involved in the Hillel and won’t have the rabbi to go to,” he said.
Rachel Chabin, an SBU undergraduate, said among her favorite memories at Stony Brook were the annual Sukkot holiday dinners with student leaders from the Jewish Student Association that Topek and his wife host in their home, something she said is in line with his character as he is always generous with his time.
“He’s a fierce advocate for students, and personally ensures that no one faces discrimination or penalty for things like missing class for a Jewish holiday.”
— Rachel Chabin
“As an observant Jew, holidays like Sukkot can feel lonely on campus, with most students going about their day like usual,” Chabin said. “Rabbi Joe’s dinner always made me feel better about staying on campus for the holiday, because he offered us a good meal and good company.”
Chabin said she’ll miss the rabbi, who she met with once a week where they would choose a topic or section of the Torah or Talmud to study and discuss.
“He’s a fierce advocate for students, and personally ensures that no one faces discrimination or penalty for things like missing class for a Jewish holiday,” Chabin said. “He makes sure that everyone can access a kosher meal plan or a Sabbath-friendly dormitory.”
In addition to being director of the Hillel, the rabbi said he’s been honored to be part of the Interfaith Center at SBU where he currently serves as chairperson. He said he feels the center, which represents various faiths, is an important entity on campus serving as an example of the university’s focus on diversity and cooperation.
“In many ways, I’m proud of what our center has become, and also because it puts students from very different backgrounds together,” Topek said. “They do community programming, they do community service projects together, they learn about one another’s faith but, most of all, it’s relationship based.”
Sister Sanaa Nadim, a chaplain, has been working with Topek for 25 years at the interfaith center and called him a brother-in-arms. She said she considers him a civil servant on campus who is there for all students while constantly rallying for human rights. She said he has helped them navigate difficult times such as the Muslim ban two years ago, where the rabbi spearheaded a rally to support students detained at the airport.
“He has been a very monumental figure in the interfaith center and the success of the institution for our chapter,” she said.
Nadim said he has also been there to help students navigate world events, including a tsunami in Japan and an earthquake in Haiti.
“He led by heart and by example,” she said.
Topek said after retiring from the academic side of SBU, he will remain a chaplain with the Long Island State Veterans Home. Between serving as chaplain and living in the Three Village area with his wife Susan, he said he will be in touch with his colleagues and the students after retiring.
“I don’t see myself as really leaving the academic community,” he said.