By Laura Porter
Song leader and health coach, author and expert in non-profit management, Beth Whitman is a Hillel professional who brings a broad range of experience to her new position as the director of Clark University Hillel.
Most important, she loves to work with college students.
Whitman previously worked at MIT Hillel and then served as Hillel Director at Northeastern University for thirteen years.
Growing up in Andover, Whitman was “the poster child for NFTY,” she jokes, an early indicator of her lifelong commitment to the Jewish community.
NFTY, through Andover’s Temple Emanuel Temple Youth (TEMTY), dovetailed with a summer at Kutz Camp, where she learned to be a songleader and met her first boyfriend, Steve Meltzer, whom she would later marry.
In college at UMass Amherst, her experience as a songleader led to frustration with the egalitarian Hillel service, which lacked musical instruments. In response, she worked with the regional office of UAHC to initiate a Five College Reform Group on the UMass campus.
She turned to the marketing world after college, but soon “realized that I missed working in the Jewish community,” she says. After several years as the Hillel Administrator and Development Associate at MIT, she sought a new challenge at Northeastern Hillel.
“When I was hired, it seemed like a huge stretch,” she recalls. But after Sam Mendales, the Regional Director of Hillel Council of New England, told her to try the job for a year, she ended up staying for thirteen-and-a-half.
During her tenure at Northeastern, the initially small organization flourished. She oversaw the move into a newly renovated building and helped Hillel grow from “a few students for Shabbat [to] over 40-50 weekly for services and dinner,” she says.
On the day before Passover in 2009, however, her husband, Steve Meltzer, died suddenly at the age of 45. Meltzer, a singer-songwriter and teacher, taught at many area synagogues, working with youth and developing, leading and participating in music programs.
The Central Massachusetts Jewish community, and the Jewish music world across the country, shared Beth Whitman’s devastation at his loss.
“Somehow, I made it through the end of the semester with the help of great friends, family and colleagues,” she says now.
Remaining at Northeastern Hillel through the following academic year after her husband’s death, she ultimately decided to leave her job to complete a master’s degree at Northeastern in Leadership.
While at Hillel, she had received a graduate certificate in non-profit management but hadn’t had the time to finish an advanced degree. Her master’s program combined both online and residency study. It emphasized hands-on experience that culminated in a summer study abroad in Florence, where her project focused on the Jewish community of the city and its changes over hundreds of years.
After she completed her degree, Whitman looked in vain for jobs in the non-profit sector, and then turned to Health and Wellness, working for two years as a Health Coach. It was while attending a conference at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City that she first considered writing.
“One of the speakers talked about a course they were offering recent graduates called ‘Launch Your Book,’” she says. “I always wanted to write a book about my experience. I not only lost my husband but within a five-year time frame, I lost my mother and father as well.”
In January 2016, she published Bouncing Back: Recreate Your Life, a memoir of “loss and renewal,” reads the book’s description on Amazon.com. It illustrates how Whitman “found the internal strength and courage to recreate her life – to find new love and purpose.” A key part of her new life has been Michael Whitman, whom she married in 2013.
“It was a very exciting opportunity to write the book and speak at area bookstores and temples in the area,” she says.
After the excitement died down, however, she “realized that something was missing. Even though I liked Health Coaching, I missed being part of an organization.”
Discovering the Clark Hillel job posting on the national Hillel website was “bashert,” she says.
She and her husband had just moved to Marlborough, a short mile from I-290 and a straight shot into Worcester. And she knew David Coyne, the recently retired Clark Hillel director, from her years at Northeastern as well as when she was a member of Temple Emanuel in Worcester. They are good friends and often “bounced ideas off each other for programs for our Hillels.”
“I looked at the description and it was perfect for me,” she says. “I realized how much I missed working in the Jewish community but also more importantly working with college students.”
Hillel is “a gateway to the Jewish community,” she says, and as a Jewish leader Whitman will be involved in social, religious and educational life on the Clark campus.
Given the pluralist nature of Hillel, she finds that “one of the biggest challenges is to be a representative of the Jewish community in all aspects from political to religious.” In particular, Hillel must support Israel as a whole without adopting extreme views.
At Northeastern, she says, the most significant issue was anti-Israel sentiment. To that end, Hillel’s greatest success there was “establishing a strong student Israel group on campus and creating strong programs to educate the community. We also forged ties with other religious and political groups on campus and created relationships with other Jewish advocacy groups off campus.”
She looks forward to taking that experience to Clark and to working with Clark students, who are “very engaged in student life. They are empowered to create programs that are both thought-provoking and educational.”