JERUSALEM – When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was launching a social media revolution 12 years ago, one of his suitemates at Harvard University was pursuing a different status: becoming a rabbi in Israel.
Arie Hasit finally achieved his dream this month when, after years studying Jewish texts and passing a final exam, he was ordained at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem.
For the last decade, the 33-year-old native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, has faced constant questions from peers and strangers about his life path and whether he missed an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a company that has grown into a $360 billion behemoth.
Hasit admitted to occasionally wondering what might have been had he joined the tiny startup that Zuckerberg and three other suitemates were working on. Zuckerberg’s net worth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at over $55 billion.
In 2004, Hasit became Facebook’s fourth user, after Zuckerberg and co-founders Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskovitz. As the site became popular at Harvard, Hasit said he approached them and offered to help. Hasit, a student of history and modern Hebrew with no interest in computer science, was gently rebuffed.
“They were like, ‘Arie, we like you and you’re our friend,’ and that was definitely true, we’d continue to hang out socially, ‘but no, you don’t have anything to offer here,'” Hasit recalled.
He took their comments in stride — and continued to ignore his parents’ urging that he study computer science.
He was busy leading a Jewish prayer community on campus and writing for the Harvard Political Review.
Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard at the end of that schoolyear and moved to Silicon Valley. Hasit graduated in 2005 with a double major in history and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. He wrote his thesis on Israeli hip-hop.
“The real question was, was he going to be the Israeli hip-hop professor or a rabbi?” said Zach Bercu, who studied at Harvard and met Hasit through the Jewish community. “I don’t think there was another route.”
Just a year before he lived with Zuckerberg, Hasit was having trouble with the dorm lottery system, which allows students to request to live in the same building: Hasit said some friends backed out at the last minute. So he collected money from friends and published an enormous ad in the Harvard Crimson newspaper soliciting candidates. The paper called it “the most unabashedly desperate and intrepid” housing lottery move.
Through the ad, he met a close friend, and through the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, he met Zuckerberg. In Hasit’s junior year, the three decided to live together in a suite with four other men. Four of the seven would go on to found the social networking giant.
While watching Facebook grow from a distance, Hasit immigrated to Israel after graduation and enlisted in the army, where he worked as a spokesman to foreign media. He never bragged about his famous college roommate, but word eventually got out.
“People said, ‘You’re nuts. What happened to you?'” said Aliza Landes, a fellow American who served with Hasit. During her time in the military, Landes founded the Israeli army’s social media desk. Hasit, she said, did not get involved.
Hasit did experience a moment of brief stardom. Benjy Rutland, an officer in his unit, said he remembers Hasit’s delight when he watched “The Social Network,” a Hollywood film about Facebook’s launch at Harvard, and caught a glimpse of a minor character in the film wearing a skullcap and playing drums. Hasit, himself an amateur drummer, said it was a “plausible” representation of him.
“He was happy there was something he could sort of hang his hat on,” Rutland said.
Although he didn’t become a founder, Hasit said he has managed to cash in somewhat on the global phenomenon born in his college dorm.
Shortly after Facebook’s initial public offering in May 2012, Hasit said he bought shares that have “done well.” Hasit has also used Facebook to attract 93,000 followers to read his posts, which reflect his liberal take on Jewish tradition.
In a recent Facebook missive, Hasit argued for tolerance in Judaism of gay men — a position that put him at odds with the country’s Orthodox rabbinic establishment. He based his view on a verse in Genesis that says: “It is not good for a human to be alone.” A Jewish gay couple contacted him after reading the post, and he officiated their wedding, he said.
Hasit last week completed a five-year rabbinical study program that included a master’s degree in the Talmud.
As a Conservative rabbi, he faces a significant challenge in Israel. Although the Reform and Conservative movements are dominant among American Jews, they have struggled for recognition in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities hold a monopoly over religious affairs. The smaller movements take more liberal positions on traditional religious issues, such as tolerance for homosexuality and rejecting gender segregation.
Hasit recently married, has a baby girl, and in August moved to the small Israeli town of Mazkeret Batya, where he will serve as rabbi to a fledgling congregation.
He says he’ll make about $25,000 a year after taxes, standard for a starting Conservative rabbi in Israel.
Zuckerberg, via Facebook, declined an interview request. Hasit also declined to discuss their relationship or say the last time they spoke. But he said his time living with Facebook’s founders remains an influence, and he sometimes wonders how things might have been different if he had taken a different path.
“It was good to be exposed to people who take risks,” he said. Then, he quipped, “every time I go into overdraft, I do wonder if it would have been smarter to join them.”