JCRC leader returns to roots as new head of Hillel

Jerry Isaak-Shapiro is leaving the Jewish Community Relations Council. But he doesn't like to look at it that way.

"Leaving almost has a negative connotation," says the San Francisco-based organization's associate director. "I've been very happy in the JCRC and proud of my work. I don't really see myself as leaving. I'm going toward something."

That something is the Northern California Hillel Council, an umbrella body for 14 campus Hillels that Isaak-Shapiro will head, starting in early August. He replaces executive director Evan Mendelson, who in turn will direct the San Francisco-based Jewish Funders Network, a national association of foundations dedicated to advancing Jewish philanthropy.

For the 41-year-old Isaak-Shapiro, working with Hillel's young Jews signals a return to his communal roots.

In his native Los Angeles, he spent five years as regional director of the Zionist youth movement Hashachar/Young Judaea and served as assistant director for the movement's summer camp.

Isaak-Shapiro moved away from working with young people while pursuing a master's degree in international affairs at George Washington University in Washington D.C. He subsequently accepted the position at the local JCRC, where he stayed for six years.

Working intensively with young Jews again, he says, "is a golden opportunity to really do something with a population where my heart is."

College-age Jews tug at Isaak-Shapiro's heart for a number of reasons. For one thing, he sees the young Jews as potential warriors in the fight to propel "Jewish continuity."

"Those ages are tremendously important," says the Richmond resident. "It's when people are developing their worldview and their view of how they fit in the world, and Jewish identity is part of that."

At the NCHC, Isaak-Shapiro hopes to expose the Jewish community to the role Hillel can play in strengthening young people's sense of Jewish identity.

"I'd like people to see they have a stake in Hillel, whether they have children of college age or not," the new executive director says.

The NCHC coordinates funding and programming for Hillels including those at Stanford, Chico State, Sonoma State, UC Davis, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State.

The Hillels vary in scope and character. And they face challenges that range from simple administrative shortcomings to anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic activities on campus.

For such incendiary situations, Isaak-Shapiro sees the community relations experience he garnered at the JCRC as particularly relevant.

"Campus life is even more complicated than it ever used to be, and Jewish students are part of that complex puzzle," he says. "They're working with other communities on campus, whether political or cultural. Working with other groups [extends] perfectly from community relations work."

Isaak-Shapiro cannot predict exactly what he will do in his new position. But he does plan first to visit the various campuses to meet with the Hillel students, their boards and area Jewish leaders.

One of Isaak-Shapiro's immediate goals, he says, is to get members at all the campuses to see that they're part of a larger picture, and "that students and staff and lay leaders at Chico and Davis and Stanford have something in common. There's strength in that."

As for his replacement at the JCRC, a national search has just begun. JCRC officials say they do not know how long it will take to find a successor to Isaak-Shapiro.