For many University students, faculty and some members of the Jewish community nationwide, Hillel Executive Director Michael Brooks is the type of person that changes their lives.

“Michael is capable of being angry at injustice, but I have never seen a mean streak in him – he believes in people,” said English professor and friend Ralph Williams. “He is a man who wants to build structures of support for others. Where they seem faced with rules, he will find ways of opening possibilities of the good.”

At a brunch earlier this month, more than 250 students, faculty, Jewish leaders and other supporters gathered at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield to honor Brooks for his 25 years of service to Hillel and the Jewish community.

One of Brooks’s major contributions to the Jewish community at the University has been the Half-Shekel campaign. Soon to become a national initiative, the campaign works to unite the Jewish community with a common goal of collecting donations for charities. In addition to the Half-Shekel campaign, Brooks has played a key role in the Golden Apple Award, Consider Magazine and in making Shabbat meals at Hillel free for all students. In 1997, Brooks also received the prestigious Covenant Award, which annually honors the country’s top Jewish educators.

But for many, Brooks’s greatest contribution in his 25 years has been his role in the transformation of the campus Hillel into one of the nation’s best. “He has made the University a place that Jews throughout the country want to attend. The Jewish community at the University, whose central address is Hillel, is perceived as a place welcoming to all types of Jews,” said Jeffrey Schlussel, a University alum and former chair of the Hillel Board of Trustees.

“I think it can be seriously argued that Michael has trained more Jewish leaders in the last 25 years than anyone else,” Schlussel added. “In my activities within the Jewish world, I run into more people who got their start and passion for Jewish involvement in Ann Arbor.”

LSA junior Perry Teicher, a member of Hillel’s governing board, said that when he became involved with Hillel his freshman year, he was immediately touched by Brooks’s genuine interest in and support of students’ lives. “He doesn’t talk to you with the sole goal of getting you involved with Hillel,” Teicher said. “He comes forward with advice and critiques, but he doesn’t push things to be the way he wants. He helps people develop their own ideas and find out what they can contribute.”

Schlussel said Brooks has greatly influenced the Jewish community by encouraging people to look at problems from different perspectives. “He is one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever met when it comes to issues related to the Jewish community, and whether one agrees with him or not, he forces you to seriously consider and cogitate on these many significant issues facing our community,” he said. “He has taught me what it means to be a leader and member of the Jewish community.

Williams – who gave the keynote address at the honorary brunch – agreed, saying that over the years, Brooks has become a core part of the “collective conscious” of the University community. In the discussion of issues such as race, class and religion, Williams said, Brooks speaks with a deeply moral and passionate commitment that demands responsibility and honesty from the individual. “Michael’s voice is clear, insightful and uncompromisingly honest,” Williams said. “He sees things without prejudgment and also encourages others to look with just and equitable eyes.”

Those who know him say Brooks prefers to make a difference without attracting the attention or praise of others. “He is far too humble to take credit for any of these successes, but most of them were directly caused by his work and ideas,” Schlussel said. “He is a quiet leader with a large impact.”

Ask Brooks about his role and influence within the Jewish community, and his modesty and lack of self-interest is apparent, as he inevitably focuses on the contributions of others.

“Meeting, learning with, challenging and being challenged by students is the best part of what I do,” Brooks said. “Staying in touch with hundreds of alumni and watching them continue to translate what they learned at Michigan in their own lives, institutions and communities is both inspiring and humbling.”

Brooks added that the Jewish community has its own distinct contributions to make to the world, one of which is the ability to demonstrate that it is possible to engage in passionate debate while maintaining respect for all viewpoints.

“If the Jewish community and the University can become a paradigm for that kind of community, it would be our collective gift to the world,” Brooks said. “And to the extent that I have had an impact on the culture of both of these communities, then my years here will have been well spent. I can only hope that when I leave, which one day I will, it will be several weeks before anyone notices that I’m gone.”

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