Rachel Margolis, R.J.E. ‘07

Alum, Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management
& Rhea Hirsch School of Education; Member, Board of Governors

Rachel Margolis

Please tell me about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I’m a fourth-generation New Jersey girl. My great-grandmother, for whom I am named, was a proud Reform Jew. I grew up in both a Reform and Conservadox congregation, and our family practice lay somewhere in the middle. I spent a few summers at URJ Camp Harlam in the Poconos and then I spent one summer at URJ OSRUI Camp in Wisconsin at their Hebrew immersion unit, Chalutzim. I loved it there, and this past summer I served as faculty at that camp in that unit, so it has really come full circle. The camp contributed to my Jewish journey and my interest in going deeper in Judaism, helping me own my Jewish journey apart from my parents. I spent a few more summers there on staff and then I went to Cornell University for undergrad. I felt really immersed in many different areas of the Cornell Jewish community. It was in college that I explored different kinds of Judaism, and knew that the Reform movement was truly where I belonged.

I worked for Hillel at Cornell as the Program Director for two years after graduating, and I got a chance to really think about what I wanted to do with my life. I had majored in Near Eastern studies, so I had a deep grounding in religion and language, which truly shaped my worldview and work. I felt that to really make a positive change in the world, we have to start with education and our youth. I looked into programs and HUC-JIR had the best education school to make an impact. I never thought I would leave the East Coast but I’m so glad that I did. I always felt that Los Angeles was like a Jewish playground, looking towards the future of what the community would look like, and I got to experience that as a student, an intern, and while working in Los Angeles for three years after graduating.

Margolis with HUC classmates on a summer trip to Germany in 2006.My husband, Rabbi Ari Margolis ‘08, ‘10, also went to HUC-JIR, but we met each other at Hillel, at a staff training right after college, and we started HUC-JIR at the same time. He was in the rabbinical program and I was in education. (He also has an education degree.) We were in the same Year-In-Israel cohort and then together in Los Angeles for five years after that. We’ve also lived in Raleigh, NC, where I wrote curriculum for Hebrew schools around the country and ran a Hebrew high school. Now we live outside of Chicago and I work as the Senior Program Manager in Congregation Innovations at the URJ, which I love because I get to see a bird’s-eye view but also go deep with certain congregations and learn about what’s going on in the Jewish world throughout North America. I get to use all the different components of my HUC-JIR education in the work I do today. It is very exciting to bring more congregations along the journey of innovation towards more meaningful, just, and holy work. For me, Judaism is about connecting with others in a community that reaches very far back and very far into the future. I think it helps us live lives of meaning, connectedness, and purpose. This has guided my work since graduating from HUC-JIR.

How did your HUC-JIR education impact your career?
My degrees are education and nonprofit management, but I use the tools, ways of thinking, and experiences I had while at HUC-JIR differently than I did when I was teaching or running an educational program. I use them now to think about change and what it takes to make long lasting innovation, why that innovation is important, and formulating the right questions to push a community towards change. HUC-JIR gave me the tools to be able to do that.

What is your favorite memory from your time at the Zelikow School?
I really loved my classmates and the time that we spent together was and is invaluable. We graduated in 2007 and we still try to meet monthly on Zoom because we enjoy each other’s company and like to bounce ideas. If I travel somewhere where one of my classmates lives, we always see each other. I remember great times from our Wacky Wednesdays where we would go to different Jewish organizations around Los Angeles County and learn from them. I remember sitting in class talking about where we wanted to be in five years. That time spent together wasn’t one moment but was many little moments that led to life-long relationships.

Thank you for serving as a Board Member! What inspired you to return to HUC-JIR to join the Board?
It’s a huge honor to serve on the Board of Governors. My journey to the Board began the night that I graduated with my joint degrees, when I was asked by Joy Wasserman ‘81 if I would volunteer for the Rhea Hirsch School of Education Alum Association (RHSOEAA). That was in May 2007, and I said “yes” and I just kept saying “yes” ever since then. Eventually, I served as the chair of the RHSOEAA as we unified into one School of Education Alum Association, which was incredibly rewarding work. I joined the Alumni Leadership Council, which was another great way to use many of the skills I learned in the Zelikow School and reconnect with Zelikow alumni. I keep saying “yes” because the work I’m doing still feels important. What the College contributes to the Reform Jewish world and the Jewish world in general is huge. I feel honored to now serve as an Alum Governor for an institution that has such a stellar reputation and does such important work.

Please describe your alum leadership role and why alumni should continue to be engaged with HUC-JIR throughout their careers.
I have always felt like my education at the college was a gift, so for me the “yes” back in May 2007 was easy because I wanted to give back to an institution that gave me a lot over three years. It pushed me and there were people that believed in me and helped me see myself as a leader in this field. When I walk through the door I want to turn around and hold it open for others. Sometimes that means holding it open with the College, sometimes it means pushing the College to think differently, and as a leader you get to do those things. I’m always talking to people about getting more involved with the College and helping to bring up the next generation of leadership in the Jewish community. It’s a great way to stay connected with colleagues, and to build new and deeper relationships with them. I have many more colleagues and friends around the country because of this leadership work, and it’s always helpful to know what’s happening on the ground in other communities. I’m constantly inspired by the work of our alumni, and seeing all the good, important work that our alumni do is another plus of being involved.

How would you describe HUC-JIR in one word?
I would describe HUC-JIR as a spark. As an academic institution it sparks curiosity and learning, and as an institution in the community producing alumni and research scholarship it sparks spirituality and a desire to learn more.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I love spending time with my family. We have three girls, ages 5, 9, and 11. We have a dog and we love spending time with him outside, exploring local parks. I love to cook, and I’m an avid challah baker. I bake a lot of challah and give away a lot of challah every week. I also love to knit and create things with my hands.