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Hillel director will leave at year’s end

Monday, December 3, 2007

Though Rabbi Serena Eisenberg ’87, executive director of Brown/RISD Hillel, has traveled to Israel many times before, her next trip will be different. On New Year’s Day, Eisenberg and her family will move to Ra’anana, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Eisenberg, an associate University chaplain, has been considering the move since she came to Brown in fall 2005, the same year her husband took a job running the U.S. branch of an Israeli company. Last year, he was promoted to chief executive and has been commuting between the United States and Israel ever since.

“Beginning last winter, I began to have very quiet conversations with people that (the commute) would not be sustainable for our family life,” Eisenberg said.

Last April, she formally announced to the Hillel board that she would be stepping down at the end of the fall semester.

“She walked into my office and closed the door and said, ‘We’re about to have the conversation that neither of us wanted to have,’ ” said Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of the University. “She told us fair and square right up front. It’s probably fair to say I’ve been dreading it since before I hired her.”

Eisenberg held her position for only two years, and her predecessor Rich Kirschen left after only three years on the job.

But Cooper Nelson said such high turnover is unusual. “By and large, chaplains come and stay,” she said.

For example, Alan Flam P’05, who preceded Kirschen as Hillel’s director, served in the role for 18 years. Flam is still at Brown as a senior associate University chaplain and senior fellow at the Swearer Center for Public Service.

In her short time at Hillel, Eisenberg has broken barriers. She is the first female and the first alum to hold the position of executive director, Cooper Nelson said.

Birthright trips, in which young Jewish people receive an all-expenses paid trip to Israel, have become more popular among Brown students since Eisenberg began working at Brown. “We just began to have a Brown Hillel Birthright trip in my first year, and since then it has grown in popularity,” Eisenberg said. “I really feel proud of the fact that several hundred students have gone to Israel. That’s definitely something that wasn’t in place before I came.”

Sixty-eight students will be heading to Israel in January, Eisenberg said.

Hillel will hire two people to replace Eisenberg – an executive director responsible for administration, board development and financing and a rabbi to focus on program and pastoral issues.

“There are two searches underway right now, one of which is a joined search, meaning that the University and Hillel are searching together for a rabbi,” Cooper Nelson said. “Hillel is searching for an administrative officer.”

The most likely candidates will be those already connected to the University, Cooper Nelson said. “We’ll be using our wonderful Brown geography network” to find them, she said. “We’re using that network through letters and e-mails and alums.”

Eytan Kurshan ’08, the student president of Hillel, represents students’ perspective in the search process. “We put him on the executive committee of the search,” she said. “We really wanted to signal that students are critical.”

Students were the main advocates of the decision to separate the position into an administrator and a rabbi, Kurshnan wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

“There are all sorts of students on this campus, and it is most important that candidates demonstrate an ability to work with everyone. Hillel is not meant to be an exclusive place, but it is often regarded as just that,” Kurshnan wrote. “We want someone who will make the diverse opportunities that Hillel has to offer more accessible to more people.”

Though Kurshan is the only student on the executive committee, there is also a separate student search committee composed of seven students who will conduct interviews with candidates.

According to Hillel’s Web site, the desired start date for both new employees is July 1, 2008.

In the meantime, Assistant Director of Brown/RISD Hillel Megan Nesbitt will serve as associate director. Amy Hirsch will provide rabbinic coverage, Cooper Nelson said.

Eisenberg said that Cooper Nelson described being at Brown as “trying to take a drink of water from a fire hydrant.”

“My regret is that there are thousands of incredible students that I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know,” Eisenberg said.

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