I became Executive Director of Hillel at Drexel University by accident.  Sometimes you look for captivating leadership opportunities – sometimes they find you.

I graduated from rabbinical school in June of 2010 poised to spend a year treading water while I waited for my wife to graduate. I would work for Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, where I had interned, in a one-year position created for me, coordinating regional programming.  

In August, the CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia called. The Hillel Director at Drexel, the lone Hillel professional on campus, was stepping down.  There was no time to do a search – would I take the job?  Days later, I started my new position.

Drexel was the near opposite of my previous campus work.  I had no experience with fraternities, or the co-op model of higher education. I had never worked with students who were more focused on college as career training than college as a forum for self-discovery. Drexel was barely on the radar screen of Jews in Philadelphia, let alone Jews elsewhere.  I was nervous that I would spend a year desperately trying to connect with students I didn’t understand, and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted while working in an environment where, even if I managed to connect to students, there was little hope to find the resources to build something more.

I knew that to survive the year, I needed to figure out how to make things work.  I spent my first months listening and learning.  I heard about why Drexel wasn’t a candidate for growth: it’s a commuter school, the Jewish population is too small, too few Jewish alumni, other campuses in the Philadelphia area are a priority.  

If I wasn’t a boundary pusher, I would have felt defeated, waited out the year and moved on. But the folks out there telling me why it wasn’t possible motivated me to prove them wrong.  Drexel students deserved someone to be their champion, tell their story and help them build their Jewish future. 

One of the leadership lessons I’ve taken to heart is to frame challenges in the positive. Rather than focus on obstacles that might prevent me from achieving goals, I focus on what I want to achieve and what I need to do to make it happen, addressing obstacles if they arise.  That’s what we did at Drexel.

While Drexel was not yet a robust Hillel, I believed that we not only could become one, but that we could build a new model, capitalizing on our unique position as a co-op school. The puzzle pieces were there. No one had spent the time to notice the pieces were there, or had the energy to put them together because they had been focused on things they perceived as lacking.   

We had a very small set of alumni supporters, but they were the right ones, with the right connections. We had a ​university president who valued Jewish life and wasn’t afraid to encourage traditional academic departments to partner with student-life-focused offices. The co-op program ensured we had Jewish students with professional skills and passion, even if we had too few and even if most didn’t arrive with deep Jewish knowledge.  This was the raw material that makes for transformational growth. We grew, and we haven’t looked back.

Five years later, I couldn’t be prouder to be a Drexel Dragon.  Guided by the notion that our Hillel must always put our students as doers, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs first, and that embedding Jewish life within the fabric of the broader university is key to our success, Drexel is rapidly getting noticed in the Jewish world. We have doubled our student engagement (reaching nearly 550 of our 900 Jewish undergraduates), added two exceptional staff members, built a lay board nearly from scratch, tripled annual fundraising and partnered with the university to raise over $9.4M to build the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University (scheduled to open Fall 2016), which will also house the first kosher teaching kitchen at a major university in the United States.  

We’ve built something at Drexel where others saw little potential. Today we’re excited to keep dreaming big, and to push each other to see past the obstacles to the wide potential of our future.   

Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, an alum of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 17), serves as the Executive Director and Campus Rabbi at Hillel at Drexel University. She began her career with Hillel as the Advisor to Jewish students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Isabel is a 2004 graduate of Brandeis University and received her rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2010. She currently sits on the Board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Isabel can be reached at rabbi.isabel@gmail.com. ​