At the end of a long work day running the Jewish campus organization Hillel, fundraising, supervising faculty, working with a board of directors and interacting with alumni, Rabbi Joseph Topek walks out of his office and goes straight to the coat hanger to put on his Texas Longhorn cap on top of his bright red Stony Brook yarmulke.
Outside the office, Topek can be found around campus, attending sports games and live performances from student groups and supporting the Seawolves.
Although he has been at Stony Brook University for over three decades, he still has a bit of a southern drawl. His accent might reveal that he’s actually a native of Houston, Texas. Otherwise, you couldn’t tell since he can list the best bagel shops and kosher restaurants from New Jersey to New York.
Jerrold Stein, former associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students, has known Topek for more than 35 years and considers Topek a stabilizing force.
As the chair of the Interfaith Center, Topek “not only supports the Jewish community, he supports and enhances student life and helps us build a sense of community and belonging on the campus,” Stein said.
Topek has seen students and staff come and go. This summer will mark 40 years of service as the Hillel Foundation Director and three years at Virginia Commonwealth University. Topek has served as the campus director for 37 out of the 52 years that the campus Hillel has existed. The university itself is only 62 years old.
His kids grew up in the Hillel and used to spend every weekend on the campus, observing Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
“My kids did grow up here and came to many Hillel programs when they were young. Students were our babysitters,” Topek said. “I suppose you could say that our kids were ‘Hillel brats’ much like kids in military families are called ‘Army brats.’”
Topek’s three daughters are now married and he has five grandchildren. Susan Remick Topek, his wife, is a retired early childhood education specialist at the Jewish Education Project. She has published seven Jewish children’s books and has been supportive of his career.
“He’s not flying solo. She’s his anchor,” Dr. Evelyn Bromet, board member of Hillel and distinguished professor in the psychiatry department, said.
Bromet has known Topek since the late 80s and says that he is incredibly kind and thoughtful. When her mother passed away, she didn’t want to talk to anyone and stayed home, not wanting people to visit her. When others couldn’t get close to her, Topek stepped forward and didn’t take no for an answer.
“He broke down the barrier,” Bromet said. “Only Rabbi Topek would have done that.”
Besides being director of the Hillel Foundation at Stony Brook, Topek serves as a chaplain and chairs the Interfaith Center, serves on committees at the university, directs Jewish religious life, works on large scale programs, teaches courses in Judaic Studies and history and is the Jewish Chaplain for the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook Medicine.
He also has lectured for the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and the Jewish Museum in New York City, among others.
One of Topek’s most cherished and unforgettable memories is when he helped a religious patient — who had passed away at the Long Island State Veterans Home — with a small family, perform a minyan. A minyan is a public prayer that requires 10 men, but only three of the patient’s family members were male. Topek and a few students went to his funeral and completed the assembly of 10 men.
“I asked eight students to come to the funeral of a man they never met early on a Sunday morning. They all got up and came to the cemetery and very lovingly carried this man’s coffin from the hearse to the grave, helped to bury him and then said the Kaddish along with the family,” Topek said. “It was one of the most moving things I have ever witnessed and a completely selfless act by these students. Afterward, they even thanked me for giving them the opportunity to do this.”
As the times changed, so did the scope of Hillel. Hillel was initially geared toward undergraduates but now caters just as much to graduate students.
Since 2007, a program called Kesher Refuah, known as “The Medical Connection,” brings a group of about 10 medical students — regardless of faith — to Israel every summer so they can gain experience and develop as future physicians. It’s a program geared towards humanizing medicine and helps connect young American medical professionals to the State of Israel.
Joanne Buonocore, the Catholic campus minister, has worked with Topek for six years and admires his dedication. “Regardless of which specific faith tradition a student belonged to, Topek felt a student should feel supported and comfortable expressing that faith,” she said.
After his retirement as director, Topek is still going to work part-time as a chaplain in Stony Brook Medicine at the Long Island State Veterans Home.
“I may continue to teach a course, and I will be working on one or two long term book projects that I began several years ago,” Topek said.
Hillel is hosting a retirement party for Rabbi Topek on Sunday, May 19 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Student Activity Center Ballroom A.