New Stanford Hillel head plans major outreach effort

Rumor has it Chelsea Clinton has a Jewish boyfriend waiting for her at Stanford.

But whether or not the first daughter will walk through the doors of the university Hillel is not Rabbi Yoel Kahn's main concern.

For now, the new director of Stanford Hillel is busy mapping out his goals for the student organization. The former rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav started his new job just two weeks ago.

Noting that Stanford draws students with a vast range of Jewish background and experience, Kahn says priority No. 1 is letting young Jews of every stripe know Hillel welcomes them.

Along those lines, Hillel plans a major outreach campaign — aimed not only at students in dorms, fraternities and sororities, but also at twentysomethings who have left campus and may still want a connection with Jewish life at the Palo Alto university.

Two new full-time staff people, Donna Ben-Moshe and Julia Caplan, will aid in the outreach task.

"We want to have Hillel be a place where we create common ground and teach Jewish tolerance and respect," Kahn says. "Building those connections, we move from seeing other people as the `other' to seeing them as another expression of Jewish possibility."

According to Kahn, the Jewish presence at Stanford has become more visible in recent years — a result of the school's growing Jewish studies program; the appointment of its first Jewish chaplain and associate dean for religious life, Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann; and the increasing number of observant Jews opting to study at the idyllic campus known as "the farm."

Unlike San Francisco State University, where many Jewish students cite a contentious atmosphere, Stanford's Jewish students are fully and comfortably integrated into the campus community, according to Kahn.

The rabbi wants to keep it that way, particularly for observant Jews crossing the campus quad wearing kippot.

He notes that Stanford Hillel — one of the country's largest Hillel programs — offers both liberal and conservative worship services, has a kosher co-op and maintains ties with the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan, whose rabbi has taught Torah study classes on the Stanford campus.

Jewish learning is a priority for Kahn, who for several years has been working on his Ph.D. through Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. His dissertation focuses on the merging of liturgy and modern thought; he plans to continue his academic pursuits while working at Hillel, where he also hopes to teach classes on various aspects of Jewish life.

Among his visions for Hillel is a Beit Midrash, or house of study, which he imagines as a place where students could meet before holidays and at other times of the year to discuss and analyze traditional and modern texts. Ideally, local scholars would serve as guides.

"There are these immense resources on campus and around the community for Jewish learning," Kahn says. "We want to find informal ways to bring those resources to the Hillel community."

The 38-year-old openly gay rabbi led Sha'ar Zahav — a Reform congregation with outreach to gays and lesbians — for 11 years. He left the pulpit there last year, primarily to spend more time with his partner, journalist and poet Dan Bellm, and the couple's son Adam, who just started first grade.

After a year away from organized Jewish life, however, "I really missed doing the Jewish stuff in the community," he says.

Of course, Kahn will bring aspects of his Sha'ar Zahav experience to his new position at Stanford. The San Francisco congregation prides itself on diversity and emphasizes member participation in all aspects of synagogue life.

"It's much more important for me to teach a class about how to lead services than for me to actually lead the service," Kahn says. "That's where I think my Sha'ar Zahav experience is a great transitional model."

In joining Hillel, Kahn replaces Rabbi Ari Cartun, who left the Stanford office last summer after 21 years. Cartun earned a reputation as an innovative risk-taker who often opted for colorful visibility when it came to promoting Hillel activities and Jewish landmarks.

Many of the traditions Cartun started will abide under Kahn's tutelage — a student intern program, for example, and a Hillel library.

At the same time, "tradition has a vote, but not a veto," Kahn adds. "We want to build on the traditions that have been inherited, and also start building new traditions that work for us."

Now, a year after Cartun's departure, students appear eager to once again have a permanent leader at their helm — and they seem happy that Kahn is their man.

"He seems like a very warm person, very personable, really enthusiastic for what we want to do," says Laurie Hahn, a senior majoring in history and an active member of Hillel. "He's adding a lot of energy and really pushing Hillel off to a good start this year."

Michael Cowan, vice president of Hillel's board, echoes the sentiment. "He has just plunged right in and taken charge," Cowan says. "He has a vast Jewish knowledge and loves working with young people. We're thrilled he accepted our offer."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.