YOU SHOULD KNOW…Rabbi Rob Gleisser

Rabbi Rob Gleisser (Courtesy of Rabbi Rob Gleisser)

On, Rabbi Rob Gleisser is described thusly: “Whether he is teaching, talking or eating with students, Rob hopes to encourage students to find confidence in their own authentic expressions of Jewish life.”

For doing just that, Gleisser won the Rising Star Award from Hillel International in December.

The 31-year-old had no idea that he even was nominated. He was not at the Hillel International conference where the award was presented. His wife, Missy Goldstein Gleisser, who works in marketing for Hillel International, attended instead. It was the rabbi’s turn to watch their 2-year-old son.

“It’s a new award, and it came as a big surprise,” Gleisser said.

“It means a lot to me,” he added.

Gleisser is the senior Jewish educator at Penn State University’s Hillel. On a campus, University Park, with about 4,000 Jewish students, he is essentially the leader of the Jewish community. It’s a big responsibility for a young rabbi, but Gleisser has taken it on.

Since arriving in July 2020, he has increased the number of cohorts, or groups of 10-12 that meet regularly, from two to 24. In 2023-’24, he has already “connected with almost 350 students, nearly doubling the annual expectations for Hillel student engagement professionals on college campuses,” according to a news release announcing his victory.

The rabbi’s relentlessness and gregariousness earned him the title of Rising Star. But the word rising is doing a lot of work there, according to Gleisser.

“It’s like rookie of the year. I have to make sure that it’s not the defining moment of my career,” the rabbi said.

As the award was presented at the conference in Dallas, Missy Gleisser FaceTimed Rob Gleisser back in Lamont, the town next to State College. She took her husband onto the stage with her. Afterward, he was flooded with texts and calls. Even students reached out.

“That was the most meaningful,” the rabbi said.

Gleisser was quick to say that the award was not about him. It was a victory for Penn State Hillel.

Gleisser was nominated for the award by Robin Markowitz Lawler, the associate director at Penn State Hillel.

“There’s no one professional at any Hillel that can do the work alone. Penn State Hillel is blessed to have an incredible staff,” he said. “It’s confirmation of the work we’re doing as a team. It’s confirmation of the home we’ve built for students on campus.”

“We’re there for the students. Not for the accolades,” he added.

Gleisser’s approach to leading a Hillel is straightforward: Connect with students, listen, build relationships.

“We don’t ever tire of getting to know students,” he said.

Those conversations have led to a variety of new programs since the rabbi arrived on campus. Men to Menshes is a program in which Gleisser teaches fraternity leaders to educate their brothers on “Jewish experiences and lessons.”

“What is the Jewish approach to masculinity? What is the Jewish approach to drinking? What is the Jewish approach to intimacy?” the rabbi said. “They have members of their own fraternity coming in to teach these lessons.”

Gleisser also started a Grad-Jew-ate program for Jewish seniors and a weekly Torah study group. After Israel was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, he focused more on Hillel’s Kol Yisrael cohort for Israel education. There are also what the rabbi describes as “standard Hillel initiatives” such as Shabbat, challah baking and a decorating committee for the facility.

And, in general, PSU Hillel’s doors are open. If students want to come by and talk, study or just sit and do nothing, they are welcome.

“I love working with college students. It’s an underserved demographic. What we get to do is give people skills and tools to become the best versions of their Jewish selves,” Gleisser said. “These are the years when you’re discovering who you are and what you want to be. We insert Judaism into that space.”

Not so long ago, Gleisser was one of those impressionable students. The Cleveland kid attended Ohio State University and became an active Hillel student. He grew up in a Reform household and synagogue but felt a desire to go deeper into his religion.

At Ohio State, the chapter’s leaders, Rabbi Ben Berger, Executive Director Joseph Kohane, Director of Jewish Life Rabbi Leigh Ann Kopans and Associate Director Susannah Sagan, encouraged him to lead Shabbat services and give sermons even though, as Gleisser put it, his “knowledge wasn’t robust.”

“I was still given the opportunity to be a leader when I wanted to be,” he said.

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