Rabbi Jessica Kirschner had been at her new job as Hillel at Stanford’s executive director for only two weeks, and already was caught in what she calls “an incredible sprint” — freshmen were to arrive on campus in a few days, followed a day later by Rosh Hashanah.
The fact that the start of the autumn quarter and the High Holy Days come at the same time is just an extra challenge facing Kirschner, who is expecting her second child in November.
Challenges are nothing new for Kirschner, who was president of the Jewish Student Union at UC Berkeley during the early stages of the second intifada — a time when issues in Israel led to tensions on campus between Jews and non-Jews, and among Jews.
Kirschner spent her junior year abroad in Israel in 2000-01, refusing to join many Americans in fleeing for home despite the violence in Israel that broke out in September 2000. She returned for her senior year to a Berkeley campus choked with tension.
“Staying in Israel for that whole year was a really transformative experience for me, and then I came back to a campus filled every day with national TV trucks,” she said. “It was a rocky couple of years. I learned a lot about what it was like to lead a Jewish community that was a big tent.”
Ellen Konar, president of Hillel at Stanford, said Kirschner’s experiences as a student leader at Berkeley were a big factor in her selection to replace Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, who resigned after six years as executive director.
“Her willingness to take on issues and be a spokesperson for a variety of Jewish issues was a tremendous plus in our considerations,” Konar said. “She seemed to have a deep and abiding commitment to Jewish life, Jewish learning and Israel.”
Kirschner, an Oakland native, was hired after a four-month national search. A nine-member committee screened more than 70 candidates and narrowed the diverse field to three candidates.
Kirschner’s last job was with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was California director of leadership and congregations. Before that, she was associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.
Though she loved her job at the RAC, Kirschner said the Stanford position was too tempting to pass up.
We have a window where people are deciding who they want to be in this world.
“There’s the appeal of being able to be with students, and for students, at this formative period in their lives, when they find the place Judaism plays in their identity,” she said. “We have a window where people are deciding who they want to be in this world.”
There are about 550 Jewish undergrads and 1,100 Jewish graduate students at Stanford, Kirschner said, and Hillel serves as a base for many of them. In addition to Shabbat meals, some come to Hillel to socialize or to plan activities ranging from poetry slams to concerts to social justice events.
Hillel at Stanford hosts three minyans — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — and Kirschner said she hopes to attract non-Jews, as well, for meals or activities. Though much of what Hillel offers revolves around the college experience, she said, a lot also prepares students for life after graduation.
“Our students live here and are focusing on things like midterms, but they’re not in a bubble,” Kirschner said. “They’re citizens of the world. Here at Stanford, we hope we’re helping them to become global leaders, and at Hillel we want to make them global Jewish leaders.
“We know from conversations with students that social justice matters a lot to them, they care what is happening in Israel and also in the United States. They’re not in lockstep. They don’t all see the same solutions. It’s our job to help them understand the situations they are curious about with as much nuance as possible and as much Jewish depth as possible.”
Being a student is tougher now in some ways than it was when she was at Berkeley almost two decades ago, Kirschner said, including the immutability of social media.
“I think there are some things that are relatively eternal to the university experience — learning, freedom, autonomy and figuring out how to become the adult you want to be,” she said. “But there are things that are harder about being a student now. And that includes [having] so little privacy. Everything you say feels permanent. It makes it hard to be nuanced and explore [when] there’s a record made about you.”
For Kirschner, changing one of her own long-held allegiances presents yet another personal challenge. As a UC Berkeley grad, and as the daughter of two UC Berkeley grads, she knows it will be hard for her parents to see her wearing Cardinal red when they visit for football games against Cal.
“I grew up in a house where we were not allowed to own anything red,” she joked. “I fully expect my parents will still come here to the Big Game dressed in blue and gold.”