The chair of Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Professional Leadership, Professor Shirley Idelson, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the program, its future and herself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.
Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the spring 2022 semester.
Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?
I’m a rabbi, I’m a historian and I’m also a journalist. All of my professional work, really going back to when I first entered the rabbinate, has been focused on the intersection of higher education and Jewish leadership. I’ve worked in various positions in Hillel. I was Dean of a rabbinical school in New York City. The opportunity to serve as director of the Hornstein program was just unbelievably exciting for me because it’s really right there at that intersection that I care so much about, which is how we, as institutions of higher education, train a new cadre of Jewish leadership who can face the enormous challenges that not just the Jewish community, but the global community, is facing. So it was a very exciting opportunity. To be at an institution like Brandeis also struck me as a very special opportunity because of [its] uniqueness.
Is there anything that you wish students knew about the Hornstein program?
What students should know is if they have an interest in Jewish professional leadership, Hornstein should be their first stop. We have a B.A.-M.A. program that is open to Brandeis undergraduates. So it’s conceivable that a Brandeis student could start the Hornstein program in their senior year, applying in their junior year. But, what Brandeis students should know about Hornstein is that it’s deeply committed to Jewish professional leadership, social justice, and empowering emerging leaders to have a vision for Jewish life and to make that vision real. We give our students the tools, the knowledge, the skills that they need to make their vision real out in the broader community. I would add that we have a nearly 100% placement rate, it’s a great … path toward having a meaningful career in the Jewish community.
Where do Hornstein graduates end up after graduation?
Our graduates serve in a whole range of mostly Jewish organizations from Jewish social justice organizations to Jewish summer camps to the informal Jewish education sector, but also formal education. … There’s a pretty broad range. The one thing I would add, because I said Jewish social justice organizations, which is a really important one, but also, Israel advocacy would be another area. A good number of our graduates are working in Israel advocacy and a whole range of other nonprofits that don’t fit any of those categories that I just mentioned, but just like nonprofits they are geared toward very targeted needs within the Jewish world.
How many students typically participate in the Hornstein program?
Our graduating class this year is 19, and next year’s class [will be] 12 students. … It’s generally within that range.
What are the requirements to participate in the Hornstein program?
Being Jewish is not a requirement and not all Hornstein students are Jewish. We welcome absolutely everyone who is interested in the field that we serve, which is Jewish professional leadership, but you do not have to be Jewish to go to enroll in Hornstein. … We’re looking for students who have a demonstrated capacity for leadership and who have the seeds of a vision for a world that they want to shape. We want students to bring a strong academic record, but [we also look] beyond the classroom. You certainly can show leadership in the classroom and that’s important, but we also look at a student’s record outside of the classroom. A strong Hornstein candidate would have demonstrated leadership in any of a variety of areas. … That’s the mix that we look for: a strong academic record, a demonstrated capacity for leadership, and a vision for a world that they seek to create. Another thing that I love about the Hornstein program that’s really important is that we’re a pluralistic community, and that’s always been core to Hornstein. That’s one of the things that drew me to Hornstein. We have Hornstein students and have had in the past Hornstein students who are not Jewish, but the majority of students are Jewish. And one of the beautiful things about Hornstein is that we create a cohort experience, and the cohort experience in Hornstein is another thing I should have mentioned earlier. That’s really central to who we are building a strong sense of cohort is part of what Hornstein is about. And we do [all of] that in a pluralistic environment.
What draws you to reform Judaism specifically?
In Hornstein … our aim is to bring people together across differences, and we do that really well. That’s really core to my approach to Judaism: an embrace of pluralism. … What drew me, and still draws me, to reform Judaism is the principles of equality and the centrality of the Jewish tradition in relation to social justice. Those are two principles that are, I think, core to reform Judaism and very important to me.
Is there anything that you wish that the students knew about you?
I want to meet Brandeis students. So feel free to reach out, to talk about anything. I’d love to talk with you about Hornstein, but I also would love to talk to you about your life, your experience at Brandeis, your priorities, your vision for the world and the challenges that you’re hoping to be able to confront when you graduate from Brandeis. That’s the most important thing. I really have an open door, [so] feel free to reach out. You can put my email address (email@example.com) in the article. That is the best way to reach me. … So that’s probably the most important thing: I’m just eager to meet Brandeis students.