Rabbi Liza Stern deepens spiritual life at Brandeis

Brandeis’ director of spiritual and religious life supports the Multifaith Chaplaincy

rabbi liza sternPhoto/Mike Lovett

Rabbi Liza Stern

Rabbi Elisabeth "Liza" Weiss Stern is the new acting director of spiritual and religious life at Brandeis as well as a Jewish chaplain, but like Brandeis students, she draws much of the inspiration for her work from extracurricular activities.

Stern has played amateur hockey (retired for now), she keeps bees, raises chickens, has raised five children and is now a proud new grandmother. She continues to serve as rabbi to Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, a diverse, socially-active congregation in Cambridge, and her husband is also a rabbi in Newton, where they live and where she grew up.

While Stern is not a Brandeisian by graduation, her ties here go back more than a decade. She served as an interim Jewish chaplain last semester, and from 1998 through 2001 she taught in the Hornstein Program of Jewish Communal Service. She was recruited to that role by Jonathan Sarna '75, MA'75, University Professor and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish history. Sarna had been her teacher when she was working on her rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College, where she graduated in 1984.

As the leader of Brandeis' Multifaith Chaplaincy, Stern says she wants to expand the chaplains' visibility among students of all - or no - faiths. One of her first initiatives is assigning a chaplain to each quad to be available to students of all faiths living in the residence halls.

She spoke with BrandeisNOW about that initiative and her other thoughts on spirituality at Brandeis.

BrandeisNOW: Talk about why you feel assigning chaplains to quads will be helpful to students, even for those whose faith may not be that of the assigned chaplain?

Stern: I think the chaplains that are here are wonderful human beings. Their access has often been limited to students who are already self-defined in their religious or spiritual identity. We've got to break through that; it's not about a particular religious identity, it's really about the larger spiritual growth students can undergo at college.

Often on this campus, students turn to other students for support. That is a tribute to our students, but it has its limits. Without undermining that wonderful support network, I want students to be able to access people who have more training and are older when that kind of help might be necessary.

While of course we want to support students within their faith tradition, connecting with chaplains of other faiths can be deeply powerful also. Just the other day, a student whose background isn't Jewish stopped by the chaplaincy office. She has a relative in Florida who was facing the threat of hurricane Irma and she was very upset. She didn't need a counselor at that moment, she didn't need a therapist; she needed a chaplain. At that moment, it didn't matter what religion I represented.

BrandeisNOW: What would you say are Brandeis' spiritual strengths?

Stern: Brandeis is an amazing place for religious practice; I've never seen a campus where students feel empowered to express their spirituality and faith traditions they way they do here. There are so many different religious services on this campus that students are totally responsible for on their own. I find that to be extraordinary. On so many campuses, students wait for the 'grown-ups' to make it happen. These students don't wait for it to happen.

I had an amazing experience with some Jewish students last Saturday. I was leading an outdoor Torah study on the lawn outside of Hassenfeld. More than 20 students showed up with their lunch trays wanting to study a text. And they were clearly from a variety of backgrounds. I thought, `this is really amazing that students are motivated this time of the week to come and seriously engage with the texts.'

BrandeisNOW: Where do you think there's room for improvement?

Stern: In terms of visibility I want the chaplains to be on everybody's list as a resource. That means simple things like just being on resource lists, and things like connecting with people on campus and making sure they think to include us.

I also want the chaplaincy resources to be more clearly available. If you want to use the Dharmic or Muslim prayer space, you have to ask a lot of questions about where they are. While silos are a wonderful structure for keeping things safe, we'd like to put windows in them if not knock them down. We have wonderful multifaith dinners every month and we'd like those to become more visible (students can contact the Multifaith Chaplaincy office here to sign up to attend a dinner). Next month we'll be holding one in the Sukkah during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

BrandeisNOW: Like a Brandeis students, you're involved with a lot of different activities. How do those inform your rabbinical work?

Stern: I definitely believe in fun. I live my truth, which is that life is a gift, and that I am fortunate enough to be blessed with opportunities to breathe deeply and to explore the world around me. And all the things I've done that sound a little less conventional are utterly tied into my belief that everything is interconnected.

I took a sabbatical and lived on a farm for a year and when I came back, I realized that in all my sermons all my experiences on the farm became a metaphor for something I wanted to talk about. When I was playing hockey I used hockey as a metaphor. I often use bees as a metaphor.

A bee in her lifetime travels for thousands of miles. She probably lives for about six weeks and she can travel up to five miles looking for the perfect flower. She brings her nectar back to the hive, then she flies out again. Often these worker bees, which are primarily female, die when their wings wear out. In her entire life, a bee will make approximately one teaspoon of honey. So if that isn't a sermon about our lives...and every time I put a teaspoon of honey in my tea, I think 'a bee worked her entire life for that.' People wonder if they matter, and I just think no matter who we are, each of us is just making one teaspoon of honey, and the world needs us each to keep doing that.

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