2 hired to fill slot after Stanford Hillel director leaves

In the wake of Rabbi Yoel Kahn's departure as director, Stanford Hillel has split the position and brought aboard two full-time heads: one administrative, one spiritual.

Debra Feldstein, who has spent the last three years as an administrator at the Hillel at Tufts University, is executive director. Reform Rabbi Noa Rachael Kushner, who served as director of Hillels of Westchester, N.Y., for a year., is the spiritual leader.

The two replaced Kahn, who has a one-year teaching appointment at the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. He is filling in for David Biale, who is at U.C. Davis while on leave at the GTU.

The dual appointment at Stanford Hillel is something of a trend nationally. Within the past few years, Washington University in St. Louis and University of Michigan have divided up their leadership roles, as have a small number of other campuses.

"What that says is that we are becoming larger and more consequential on campus," said Robert Rosenzweig, Hillel board president.

The Stanford organization serves as many as 2,000 students plus faculty and staff. The university's Jewish studies department is closely involved, and faculty from women's studies and other departments serve on its board. Some 5,000 turn out for the High Holy Days services each year.

Kahn opted out when his two-year contract expired in June. His departure prompted the board to divide the position, Rosenzweig said.

"We had all hoped he would stay on. He made a heroic effort and was largely successful at mastering the administrative end. But the fact is that rabbis are not trained to deal with the problems of running an organization, nor do they expect to have to. That is not why they went to rabbinical school. They are spiritual leaders," he said.

Reflecting on his former position, Kahn said, "I did find it a challenge…

"I loved what we did there, and I loved the people. Stanford has very ambitious plans and now they have the staff to do it."

His new role at the GTU, from which he earned his doctoral degree this spring, will allow him to do more "traditional rabbinical work," he said. "I look forward to being an academic and a rabbi."

His successors say they are reaping a bounty from the grounds he has tilled.

Kahn "has built a wonderful foundation here," Kushner said. "Because of what he has done, I am able to build upon it."

Kushner is the daughter of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who has written several books on Jewish spirituality, including "Invisible Lines of Connection" and "Finding God in Ordinary Places."

Yet Noa Kushner said she was "definitely not one of those kids who grew up saying, 'I'm going to be a rabbi.'" Only when she entered college and encountered peers to whom Judaism was not particularly important did she begin to contemplate a life of leadership.

She connects with Jewish students "by being real," she said, "and understanding that religious questions are not simple."

She likes what she sees at Stanford Hillel so far.

"We're on fire," said Kushner, a 28-year-old who was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1996. "Stanford Hillel is just exploding with activity. I love it."

Kushner's husband, Michael Lezak, is also a Reform rabbi. He has taken a job as assistant rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

Feldstein, 31, who moved into her new office at the beginning of August, has a long history of work in the Jewish community — primarily with the Anti-Defamation League. A former practicing attorney, she specialized in real estate and employment discrimination law.

"I don't miss that at all," she said. "This is so much more interesting."

Kushner will serve a diverse student community comprising students of all levels of observance, many from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe as well as Latin America.

"She's very bright," Rosenzweig said. "She connects well with students, and, I expect, faculty, too."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.