Shelley S. Hebert

The Algorithm for Jewish Life in Silicon Valley

A steady stream of international visitors comes to Stanford searching for the magical algorithm that will enable them to replicate Silicon Valley. If that were possible, an essential step would be to create what a former Stanford University president described as “permeable boundaries.” This characteristic is not only key to understanding Silicon Valley, it is embedded in the operating system that invisibly runs Jewish life here but can’t actually be seen.

Permeable boundaries enable people to move across institutions, groups and categories, often with innovative results. This idea first inspired (or obsessed) me as executive director for development of a new Jewish campus that would reimagine a community center in the heart of 21st century Silicon Valley. Because our goal was to create a place for the entire Jewish community, I needed to get to know that community by crossing boundaries as never before.

Over the next few years, I left my comfort zone so far behind that I no longer remembered having had one. The reassurance of being only among other Jews who think like me, dress like me, pray like me, vote like me and even eat like me challenged my preconceptions and stereotypes. It also opened my eyes.

Growing up in New Orleans, I had lived just a few blocks from Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel whose building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Seeing the dramatic photos of its Torah scrolls being rescued  was the devastating confirmation that my family home was completely flooded. It also made me realize for the first time that I had never been there. Why? Because we belonged to a Reform synagogue. Just as I didn’t know the Catholic kids who lived next door, I did not know any Orthodox families. In the wave of ecumenical outreach of the 1960s following the turmoil of desegregation, New Orleans Jews had visited a wide range of Christian churches. They did not, however, visit each other.

Now I belong to three congregations — Conservative, Orthodox and Reform — but my most important affiliation is not as a synagogue member, it is as member of the Jewish community. The reality here is that the majority of Jews do not belong to a synagogue. I learned a long time ago that we need to re-think what it means to be affiliated and that “unaffiliated” does not equal “uninterested.”

Places like our thriving multi-generational Jewish campuses are proving this. They dissolve boundaries by providing a collective community commons, just as Hillel does at Stanford and the Feast of Jewish Learning does each year, along with flourishing Jewish film festivals and top-tier Jewish museums in San Francisco and Berkeley. One of the most misguided assertions I heard while developing the Taube Koret Campus was that it would just be “a gym with a mezuzah.” Any visitor today can see immediately that it is so much more.

Permeable boundaries make it easier for people to follow their interests and be part of the community in new ways. It works for Silicon Valley and it also works for Jewish life. As we recall standing together at Sinai on this Shavuot, that awareness is both meaningful and timely.

What boundaries have you crossed that changed your views or Jewish engagement? I welcome your comments and feedback.

About the Author
Shelley has held numerous 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 as Executive Director, 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, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library. Currently she is president of the Stanford Jewish Alumni Network and a member of Stanford's first Jewish Advisory Committee. Email:
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