Berkeley Hillel director leaving with smile on her face

When Rabbi Rona Shapiro first began working at Berkeley Hillel in 1990, Jewish students at Cal probably knew as much about their Hillel as they did about their women's field hockey team.

Which is to say, not much.

But Shapiro helped change all that. When she resigns at the end of December, the level of student participation will have increased 15-fold since the start of her tenure.

Shapiro said 1,500 students stop by Hillel's Bancroft Way site at least occasionally, with 700 or so participating regularly.

It's a far cry from the 75 to 100 students who were involved nine years ago.

"It's pretty high-profile right now, a very strong organization on campus," the Conservative rabbi said. "We've established a program that reaches a lot of students and has a tremendous expression of pluralism."

Leslie Faid, a Berkeley senior, said today's Hillel is nothing like the Hillel even of four years ago.

"When I was a freshman, it was tiny, and now it's huge," the applied mathematics major said. "We would get like 11 people at Conservative [High Holy Day] services, and this year it was standing-room-only of about 70."

Shapiro can't take all of the credit. A $1.5 million building renovation in the early 1990s helped created an inviting, modern facility.

But because she's been helping mold Berkeley Hillel for most of the 1990s, Shapiro has to get a lion's share of the credit.

"Rona has carried this Hillel forward," said Berkeley Hillel board president Lauraine Jaeger.

Shapiro, now 38, was hired to serve as Hillel's spiritual leader. A few years later, she also took over as executive director.

She is resigning to move to the New York area, where her husband, David Franklin, is three months into a new job as the assistant director of synagogue affiliation for the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

A native New Yorker, Shapiro doesn't yet have a job lined up. She said she will not take an executive position for the time being so that she can devote more time to her 2-year-old daughter, Noa. The family will live in either Brooklyn or New Jersey, Shapiro said.

Adam Weisberg will take over as Berkeley Hillel executive director on an interim basis through June. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, he also served as the interim director during the 1997-98 school year, when Shapiro took a combination sabbatical-maternity leave.

Jaeger said a search for a permanent director has already been launched. Whether the search committee will hire an executive director and a spiritual leader all rolled into one — like Shapiro — is currently under consideration, said Jaeger, who acknowledged that more Hillels are hiring two people to fill those jobs these days.

Jaeger commended Shapiro for being able to handle both roles with aplomb.

"Frequently during our meetings, we'd be interrupted by students with questions about Torah or ritual or history. There wasn't a question she couldn't answer, or at the very least refer the students to the appropriate source," Jaeger said. "Rona transmitted to the students a connection to Judaism which will live on in them long after she has left."

Shapiro's fondest memories of her nine years revolve around pumping up the diversity of programming, which she felt led directly to the increase in student participation.

She championed women's programming and multicultural events. She pioneered the Campus Leadership Initiative, a program aimed at Jewish campus leaders with little if any connection to Judaism. Recent participants included the student-body president and a sales manager from the student newspaper.

"Rona engaged them in innovative programming and Jewish experiences culminating in a trip to Israel," Jaeger said. "As a result, many students who may never have become involved in Judaism did so and, in many cases, to a significant degree."

Calling the Berkeley campus an "interesting place to be," Shapiro said she was honored "to be around the minds that are here. Our students are so exciting and intellectual and enthusiastic, and it feels good to make a difference in their lives."

The diversity of programming during Shapiro's tenure included programs like "Collective Spontaneity," a jam session for Jewish klezmer performers and mainly African-American acid jazz musicians.

Two years ago, she helped stage the first-ever traditional egalitarian Mizrahi-Sephardic High Holy Day services, which were led in part by gays and lesbians.

In 1995, an all-day workshop on Judaism and the environment took place. In 1994, there was a program called "Jews: White-Skin Privilege and Eliminating Racism." In 1992, she helped start a free Shabbat program once a month, which now draws 75 to 100 students every week. Club Israel, a Tel Aviv style nightclub, also became a popular monthly draw.

"The unusual thing about her reign here was that every group had a program," Faid said. "There was something for everyone."

And that's why Shapiro can depart with a smile on her face.

"Overall, Hillel is much stronger than it's ever been," she said. "It's thriving in every dimension."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.