Last Spring, Triton Jewish Leader Théo de Sa-Kaye interviewed Executive Director Rabbi David Singer for his Nonfiction Writing Class LTWR 8C. His extraordinary piece earned him the top grade in the class. Yasher koach!
At first glance, you might not guess that David Singer is the director of UC San Diego’s Hillel – the umbrella organization for Jewish life on college campuses – let alone a practicing rabbi. Yes, he does have a stereotypically Jewish name and always wears a kippah on his head, but something about his demeanor says “business man,” “entrepreneur” or some other profession that would suit a trendy 35-year old. You can notice some gray spots popping up on his brown hair, however he manages to give off a young vibe, with a boyish and youthful voice. And his voice plays an important role in his life; after all, David is a story teller. At a convening for a student leadership incubator he launched named Triton Jewish Leaders, David begins the night telling the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. He talks about how Moses saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them to freedom in their homeland. He also talks about how the Egyptians had the perfect opportunity to seize the Israelites, but without receiving proper command, they perished as the sea enclosed on them. David tells the students about both a successful and a failed attempt of leadership. With everyone’s eyes wide open in engagement and passion, he tells these young Jewish students how they can become the leaders of tomorrow. David Singer is a leader today.
Given the task to conduct an interview with someone influential to me, I chose David to understand what has shaped him to become not only the rabbi but the person that I deeply admire and look up to. I biked to the small and humble Hillel House, which is across the street from Revelle College and where he works to support Jewish students at UC San Diego. It is a temporary solution for an ongoing battle to achieve a large center for Jewish students, which has been blocked by the city of La Jolla, notorious for its anti-semitic and anti-black policies throughout its history.
As he was in a meeting with other Hillel staff, David asked me to wait for him in his office, which is filled with artifacts and items that remind me both of his modern lifestyle, as well as his millenia-old profession. On the wall, a UC Berkeley bachelor’s diploma; right beneath it, a rabbinical diploma from the renowned Ziegler School. His bookcase is filled with books in Hebrew, which he refers to as his “Jew-y things,” but the spine of a book reading the words “String Theory” revealed his eclectic variety of interests. Family photos and heirlooms sit solemnly on the window sill, which gives a view of an empty field across the street, where the true Hillel house is supposed to be located. On another wall, I spotted a map of the neighborhood with green and red dots on the houses’ locations; I initially wondered if these were Jewish and non-Jewish residences, but David later told me the green dots indicate those who support the construction of the new Hillel House and the red dots indicate those who don’t. Behind his computer desk, there are even more personal artifacts, including a “Rabbis Against Trump” pin. David showed up to the room a few minutes later and we began the interview.
My first question was conventional: “Could you tell me about your upbringing, and what it was like to grow up in the San Diego Jewish community?” It turns out that David is much more of a San Diegan than I had previously thought; four generations a San Diegan, to be precise. “My family lived here before San Diego was much of San Diego, so I grew up very interconnected with a lot of the Jewish community. Y’know, my great-grandparents’ friends, their kids were good friends with my grandparents and their kids were friends with my parents and I’m friends with their kids, so those are four generations that I’m interconnected with. For me… San Diego has always been one big small town. Especially if you’re a part of the Jewish community.”
I proceeded to ask him about his undergraduate experience at UC Berkeley and whether it impacted his decision to become a rabbi. “It was at UC Berkeley that I decided that I wanted to be a rabbi”, he told me. “I went to Berkeley because of their architecture program and I had known that I wanted to be an architect since I was a kid.” I mentioned to him that I’d wanted to pursue architecture growing up. He asked me if I still wanted to and I told him that it was a dream I gave up on, to which he responded, “Oh. I gave up on it too,” and chuckled. “My first week of my first studio class I realized that I would have to draw for the next 5 years. And I hate drawing.” He then explained to me how he decided to drop into a history class whose professor a colleague had recommended and how that class changed his life. “And one day, I woke up and decided that I wanted to be a rabbi.”
I wanted to learn more about David’s identity as a rabbi. “Growing up, did you have any stereotypes affiliated with rabbis that you were wary of falling into? Have you been able to ‘circumvent’ these stereotypes?” He pondered for a few moments, looking up in the air and then tapping on the table before answering. “I’m as weird a person as everyone else, perhaps even weirder, but it was very important to me that being a rabbi wouldn’t be putting on a face. Being a rabbi doesn’t mean that I pretend to be anyone other than David. In fact, being a rabbi means being very real to who I am. Yes, I am Rabbi Singer, but I am also David. David is the most important part of my identity. In my rabbinate, I wear my identity on my sleeve,” at which moment he abruptly placed his hand on his sleeve and kept it there for a few seconds, emphasizing his statement and looking me in the eye.
“How has Judaism impacted your worldview and which Jewish values do you give most importance to in your life?” He paused for a moment and then looked straight into my eyes again; I’m not sure if David does this out of habit or to convey his sense of wisdom, which is already very strong to me. “There is a deep tradition in Judaism to be impatient and unhappy with the status quo. And that’s the way I live my life. I don’t like to accept what is just because it is. I like the discomfort of messing with things to make them better. And I think that’s a vision that Judaism offers of the world that really speaks to me. That everything can constantly be better, everything can constantly be changed, we can speak truth to power to create more justice, to create more love. And that’s our job to do it. I was just teaching the other day about Hillel. Not the organization, the rabbi. He makes a statement, ‘If I’m not for myself who will be for me, if I’m only for myself what am I, and if not now, when?’ And for me, the power of that last piece, ‘if not now, when’, speaks to a deep impatience with the status quo. That’s what it means to make the world a better place. It’s not to wait til tomorrow. It’s this messy impatience I think that is actually really powerful.”
We began to talk about how David got involved with the UC San Diego Hillel and his experience with it. Before I could even finish formulating my question, David immediately said “I love it. I love it. I love everyday here,” smiling in a quirky manner, only to reveal even more details about his personal ties with the Jewish community of San Diego. “Hillel right here in San Diego has been very important to my family for a very long time. My dad was the President of the Hillel of San Diego around 20 years ago and, in fact, I was sitting in his car as a teenager when he, as the chair of the facilities committee for Hillel identified that plot of land,” he says while turning around and pointing to an empty green lawn across the street, visible from the window, “as the place that we should buy so that one day we could build a Hillel at UC San Diego. We bought this house as a makeshift Hillel office, but it’s time to move forward and get that house approved by the city.” He talked about how that struggle is personal to him because it’s been going on for 20 years. When David’s parents got divorced, his father got very involved with San Diego’s Hillel, but it also became a new chapter in his mother’s life. “She hadn’t worked for a very long time, having been involved as a volunteer in the Jewish community, fundraising for the federation, but ended up coming to work here.” He pointed to the wall behind me and said “That was her office next door. She became in charge of all the fundraising for Hillel. And as much as Hillel transformed me as a student while at Cal, Hillel also transformed my mom and gave her a voice professionally for the last 5 years of her life and allowed her to come of age to herself and figure out who she was and what she was doing.” I quickly understood why David took the opportunity to come work at THIS Hillel, which in particular needed a lot of care and love, and why it was so important for him to get that empty plot of land approved in order to begin construction of the new center for Jewish students at UC San Diego. “But why has it taken so long for the Hillel House to be approved by the city?” I asked him. David shook his head ceremoniously, looked at me and said “I don’t know. All I know is that we bought this plot of land in 2001, that this is the smallest building in the state of California to ever need such a long environmental impact report. Is it because we’re Jewish? I don’t know. But look at La Jolla’s history. The planning commission’s hearing is in a few days and it’s time for us to claim what is rightfully ours.” He then looked at me and joked that he is an impatient man.
A few days went by after the interview and I was at school enjoying the wonders of studying for a quiz for a philosophy GE class. I decided to take a break and checked the news on my phone. Scrolling through the internet, all of a sudden, I read the words “Jewish Student Center Unanimously Approved by Planning Commission.” I opened the article and saw photos of David, alongside other students and prominent Jewish figures in court in downtown San Diego, fighting for what they believe is vital to make Jewish life vibrant at UC San Diego. Despite having been met with stark opposition for so many years, David was able to achieve a milestone for Hillel and the dream of the new Jewish Center now begins to rise to surface and become more of a reality. David is eternally young, messy, impatient and vocal of his opinions – and it’s that messy impatience that is able to make a change in the world.