Alumni launch network to build community among Jewish Stanford graduates

Dec. 4, 2022, 7:04 p.m.

Shelley Smolkin Hébert ’76 recalled when the only place Stanford’s Jewish community had to call home was a dreary 700-square-foot basement in Old Union.

Since Hébert’s time at Stanford, the University has expanded its resources for Jewish students. Hillel, Stanford’s Jewish community center, has a vibrant home just off Campus Drive, and the University also offers a robust Jewish Studies Program. 

But with Hillel’s resources focused primarily on serving current Jewish students, Hébert said she felt there was a need for a program that represented alumni interests and opportunities. 

The Stanford Jewish Alumni Network (S-JAN), an organization Hébert co-founded, aims to fill that gap. The network was formed in spring 2022 and opened for new members to join in August. Hébert now serves as co-president.

The network’s self-declared mission is to create “meaningful opportunities for interaction, learning, service, and inspiration infused with Jewish values and culture.” Its website provides an online space for Jewish alumni to share stories and discuss Stanford news. The network also hosts a variety of events, such as a recent webinar with Hoover Institution senior fellow Larry Diamond ’74 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80 on Stanford’s Jewish community and the recent rise in antisemitism. 

Hébert emphasized the multigenerational and diverse nature of the network’s board, something she said was important in reflecting the diversity of the Jewish community and in fostering intergenerational ties. The board is composed of Jewish graduates from various decades and includes alumni from across, and even outside, the U.S.

The launch of the network comes as Stanford’s Jewish community has faced a string of antisemitic incidents during the fall.

In early October, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne issued an apology on behalf of the University after a task force confirmed Stanford had intentionally limited the enrollment of Jewish students in the 1950s. 

“I appreciate the effort to investigate previous wrongs,” said Ethan Asher ’24, member of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, “but I’m much more invested in how we’re correcting them now.” 

The investigation was prompted by a blog post titled “How I Discovered Stanford’s Jewish Quota” by Cornell historian Charles Petersen. 

Hébert said that when she first read the blog post, she was “on the one hand stunned, and on the other hand not surprised at all.” She said that suspicions of a quota had long been circulating among alumni, and though it is difficult to deal with such a painful history, she hopes that the University’s findings will act as a catalyst for dialogue. 

The University’s apology came less than two weeks after the first two days of classes of the fall quarter — Sept. 26 and 27 — coincided with the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah, putting Jewish students and faculty in a difficult position. The Faculty Senate recently voted to push back the first day of the 2023-24 academic year calendar to avoid starting on Yom Kippur and to form a subcommittee to resolve any future conflicts.

During Rosh Hashanah this year, two Jewish graduate students reported that a mezuzah had been ripped from their door. 

Zohar Levy ’22, former co-president of the Stanford Jewish Student Association and current board member of S-JAN, said the mezuzah is a symbol of protection and religiosity in Judaism, and that its removal was a violation of more than personal property.

“I don’t think I would feel safe, honestly, if someone ripped that down from my door,” she said.

The Jewish community has also faced high-profile antisemitic events from outside the University. On Nov. 3, the University sent out an email in support of the Jewish student community following a tweet made by rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and after a hateful banner was hung over the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles.

Sigalit Perelson ’20 MBA ’23 MPP ’23 said that after the events and the University’s initial silence on the issue, she emailed University administrators urging them to publicly stand with the Jewish community and provide resources to those affected by recent acts of antisemitism. She said she was very grateful that the University ultimately did send an email acknowledging the events, a result which she said demonstrated the impact student voices can have. 

Many of the alumni expressed gratitude to the University for how it handled the task force and apology, but they also recognized the new challenges that current Jewish students face and the need to further support and unify the Stanford Jewish community. 

“The complexities of today’s world, and really today’s internet and media world, add something that just didn’t exist before in terms of what these Jewish students have to deal with,” Hébert said. 

Diamond recalled getting hate mail when he served in the student government as an undergraduate. Now, in an increasingly digitized world, “they just post it on the internet,” he wrote in an email. 

For Levy, involvement with the Jewish community was one of the most fulfilling parts of her Stanford experience. “It was one of the communities where the more you put in, the more you get out,” she said. Her appreciation for the community has made her want to continue her involvement as a member of the S-JAN board.

For Asher, the power that alumni hold with the Stanford administration is paramount, and he advocates for building relationships and participating in “power building as a community.” This would involve advocating for other religious minority and racial groups, such as supporting Muslim students in getting better food during Ramadan and creating opportunities for outreach between individuals, he said. 

Key Jewish values that current students and alumni touched on included justice, or tzedek, as well as a responsibility to heal and repair the world. 

During his webinar to S-JAN, Diamond spoke of this in the context of broader social movements for equality and justice. 

“Our demand for vigilance and prompt action in the face of any emergence of antisemitic speech, opinion, symbols, or actions will be more compelling and rally a wider coalition, if we connect it to the broader struggle for equality, justice and human dignity,” Diamond said.

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