Once at Cal, now at Stanford as Hillel director

As a young graduate student at U.C. Berkeley in the early 1990s, Serena Eisenberg decided she wanted to meet a female rabbi. Having grown up in a traditional Jewish community in Rochester, N.Y., Eisenberg had heard they existed, but had never met one in person.

“So I called up Patricia Karlin-Neumann [then a rabbi at Alameda’s Temple Israel] and went out to meet her,” recalled Eisenberg. “I just wanted to know what a woman rabbi looked like.”

Little did she know that, nearly 20 years later, the two would be working together.

Eisenberg, now a rabbi herself, is the new executive director of Hillel at Stanford, while Karlin-Neumann has been Stanford University’s senior associate dean for religious life since 2001. Five years before that, she made news when she became the school’s first Jewish chaplain.

“It’s women like her, as well as many others here in California, who inspired me to want to become a rabbi in the first place,” said Eisenberg, 46, who last month moved from Israel to the Bay Area with her husband and their three youngest sons.

Eisenberg got her undergraduate degree from Brown University and then earned a law doctorate and master’s in social work from U.C. Berkeley. After graduation, Eisenberg helped found an ombudsman’s office for the child welfare system in Alameda County and had a life-changing moment while attending the groundbreaking of a neighborhood resource center.

“I stood there, as a representative of the Alameda County foster care system, and there was an African priest doing water libations, wonderful African soul music, and food and singing,” recalled Eisenberg, who prior to graduate school had served as a social worker in the Bronx and for UNICEF in West Africa.

“It really hit home that the real healing and inspiration within a community comes from the religious and cultural leaders,” she said. “And I knew I wanted to be part of the healing and rejuvenation of my own people.”

The next decade was a whirlwind of moving and learning for Eisenberg —  she was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, served as a rabbi in Kalispell, Mont., and spent some time in Israel.

She also kept finding herself back in the Bay Area, where she served as rabbi for congregations in Berkeley and Half Moon Bay, co-chaired a huge 1995 Bay Area Jewish women’s conference and worked two different jobs at the S.F-based Jewish Com-munity Federation and the JCF’s Endowment Fund.

Along the way, in 1996, she married an Israeli who worked in the tech industry, and the two set about raising a family, which in short order came to include five sons (now ages 8 to 27).

In 2004, pregnant with the couple’s fifth son, she moved her family to Rhode Island to take over as the Hillel executive director at Brown University. Three years later, they moved to Israel, where Eisenberg’s husband took a job and she became a fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.

Coming back to the Bay Area has been joyous for Eisenberg, who said she especially relishes the chance to work with young people again in the context of university life.

“Hillel is an unbelievably fun laboratory of Jewish life,” she said. “I cherish the academic standards of freedom of speech, the robust and honest inquiry, the global questions.”

With the school year just getting going, Eisenberg is excited to start on new programming; she’s particularly focused on getting graduate students more involved.

She said she’s “honored” to be surrounded by the distinguished students and faculty at Stanford, especially some of the community leaders who inspired her path to becoming a rabbi in the first place.

“I’m walking in the footsteps of so many great people,” she said.

That said, she’s also excited about expanding Hillel’s community beyond the university gates.

“There are unbelievable young adults who live in this area, with Google and Facebook around the corner,” she said. “Jewish life can be as innovative here as it is anywhere in the world, and at any time in history. I really believe that.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.