A Jewish View from Silicon Valley

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Silicon Valley? Is it Google or Facebook, high-tech incubators or early-stage startups? Chances are, it’s not Jewish life. Yet here amidst the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States there is abundant, diverse and rapidly evolving Jewish energy and innovation. Some of it you have to search for in order to see or experience, and some you may just trip over when you least expect it.

Let’s start in my hometown, Palo Alto, the epicenter of a world-renowned place called Silicon Valley that can’t actually be found on a map. Here you may be sitting at Philz Coffee or Coupa Cafe when you realize that overhearing conversations in Hebrew at the next table no longer surprises you. Or maybe you decided to attend the recent State of the City speech held at the eight-acre, mixed-use intergenerational Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, which the mayor called a model “urban village.” You might go to the outdoor California Avenue farmer’s market on Sunday morning, strolling from Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels at one end, past the farm stands and bakeries to the kosher food aisle in Mollie Stone’s Market at the other.

Nearby at Stanford, you may not realize that the same university that has entrepreneurship in its DNA also has one of the nation’s top Judaica collections in its library. You may pass the historic building once known as “the Dunn-Bacon House” and discover that it is now the home of Jewish student life at Hillel, where visitors range from writer Tom Friedman to former Secretary of State George Shultz, diplomat/author Dennis Ross and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And just steps away from the 21st century Science and Engineering Quad is a leading Jewish studies program that offers even the most career-driven Stanford students an oasis where studying Talmud or exploring 5,000+ years of Jewish history blends easily with the most advanced pursuits in computer science or the popular HUMBIO major.

I’ve had a front row seat at the never-ending show that is Jewish life here. In 1974, I arrived at Stanford as a transfer not knowing a single person but looking for something Jewish. The previous year I had been an American college student in Israel when air raid sirens marking the outbreak of war shattered the peaceful quiet of Yom Kippur. Few had even heard of Silicon Valley then and Jewish student life was confined to cramped basement offices that soon became my home away from home. As an aspiring journalist, I was quickly appointed co-editor of the “Stanford Aliyah” newspaper and published my first bylined article, a profile of the Stanford professor who taught medieval Jewish history and introduced me to the wonders of the Zohar.

Fifteen years went by between graduation and my return here to live. (If only Stanford had printed “buy real estate now” on the back of my diploma, it would have been a huge help.) Now another three decades have passed and what was once an outpost of Jewish life on the West Coast has become an influential center that attracts and is home to seekers of all kinds. The recent addition of nonstop flights between San Francisco and Tel Aviv is but one indicator of a much bigger story.

In this new blog, I will share the view from my front row seat. I invite you to join me in exploring its meaning and messages. In the era of fake news, I pledge that what you find here will always be the real thing.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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