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New Director of Religious and Spiritual life brings support to Brandeis community

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: Features

September 8, 2017

Rabbi Elizabeth “Liza” Stern was named the first Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, a position called for in the Chaplaincy Report published in May 2015.

Stern will serve as Director and the Jewish Chaplain, taking on a role that includes religious advising and administrative roles. Prior to becoming Director, Stern was a part-time chaplain at Brandeis. She also serves as the Rabbi at the Eitz Chayim synagogue in Cambridge.

In her new role, Stern hopes to get more students exposed to the chaplaincy, regardless of their religious background. The chaplaincy often seems hidden, out of sight in their Usdan offices and not often included in official letters from the school administration or in academic discussions. Their invisibility means they can’t fully reach the student body and serve as the positive and impactful resource Stern believes they can.

No student should leave Brandeis without having met a chaplain or feeling that the chaplaincy isn’t an active part of the community, Stern said in an interview. She wants the chaplaincy to be more visible and provide resources for all students.

College is a time of personal growth, and the chaplaincy can be there to support and encourage that growth, no matter what kind of spiritual or religious traditions a student follows. The chaplaincy should be seen as another important resource and support system for the community, and Stern hopes that she can facilitate that by getting out of her office and meeting students all around campus.

The Chaplaincy Report, a document coordinated by chaplains and administrators, called for several changes to the Brandeis chaplaincy. The Director of Religious and Spiritual Life would coordinate religious leaders that are not members of the Chaplaincy—such as [people] who religious clubs bring to campus—and ensure these advisors are cultivating a healthy community. The report asks for a clear mission statement from the Director, but Stern plans to get to know the needs of the Brandeis community before laying out that statement.

Stern was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1984 after graduating from Vassar College, where she studied religion. She attended rabbinical school but never expected to end up as a congregational rabbi. In fact, Stern wasn’t even sure a woman could serve in that role or ever find a congregation that would hire them.

In addition to her roles at Eitz Chayim and Brandeis, Stern is an active member of her Newton community. She played recreational hockey for a decade after realizing that skiing, another of her passions, would not fit into her already busy life. A new mother at the time, Stern saw a woman on her way to hockey practice and decided to give the sport a try.

Her backyard is home to 12 chickens and swarms of honeybees, former residences of Eitz Chayim’ Cambridge rooftop,. The bees, she explains, serve as a reminder that everyone has an important role to play in the world. Each bee will only make about a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, but its contribution to the hive can’t be easily measured. She sees people the same way—though individual contributions may seem small, they add up to form rich communities.

Stern also serves on the Rabbinic and Cantorial Board of J Street, a Jewish activist group that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As someone who deeply loves Israel but has felt saddened by humanitarian issues and political gridlock, J Street has provided her a space to both reconcile her feelings and work towards a peaceful solution. She said there aren’t many places liberal Jews can feel comfortable voicing concerns about Israel while maintaining their love and support for the country.

Though Stern’s office is tucked away in a quiet wing of Usdan and has yet to be decorated with family photos or posters, the Rabbi fills it with warmth and respect. It’s a safe space for all students, Jewish or not, to come and laugh, cry and share their worries. After all, that’s what the chaplaincy is for.

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