Texas Hillel Begins 2017 School Year with New Executive Director
By Tonyia Cone
Texas Hillel at the University of Texas at Austin is experiencing a time of transition. The organization recently marked 11 years in its current facility, and Margo Sack retired after 23 years as director of Jewish student life. Texas Hillel is also kicking off the school year with a new executive director, Maiya Chard-Yaron.
Born and raised in San Diego, California, Chard-Yaron grew up with strong Jewish influences in her life. Her maternal grandfather was a Conservative rabbi, and her father is Israeli, so the family traveled to Israel frequently and spoke Hebrew at home.
“I always like to think that my upbringing was that blend of the Israeli spirit – the kibbutznik spirit that my dad brought – and coming from a family with a Conservative rabbinic background and that kind of very American Jewish upbringing,” she said.
Chard-Yaron attended Columbia University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2006. The move to New York City brought with it some culture shock, especially when it came to the differences between the two Jewish communities.
“I was a student athlete, so a lot of my time was taken by practices and games, but I knew I wanted to have a connection with Hillel,” she said.
Key experiences with older students and Hillel staff reminded Chard-Yaron that the Jewish community had always been really important to her, and that she would find her place in the campus community.
In the summers during college, Chard-Yaron alternated traveling to Israel to play on the women’s national softball team and working at Camp Alonim, a Jewish summer camp in Brandeis, California.
Working at Camp Alonim left an important impression upon Chard-Yaron. Witnessing the camp director’s work gave her the opportunity to consider Jewish education as a career option that made her feel very at home.
Meanwhile, through playing on the Israeli women’s national softball team for 10 years, she had the chance to represent Israel, bring together the Jewish and athletic sides of her identity and develop leadership skills.
As a sociology major in college, Chard-Yaron loved observing the world and community around her, as well as how college students navigated their identity. She knew she wanted to work for Hillel or in the Jewish summer camp world, since those were the things that had most deeply impacted her.
After earning a master’s in experiential Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, she returned to California to work as program director at Hillel at Davis and Sacramento. She served three school years in that position, then moved on to the University of Maryland Hillel, where she served as director of educational engagement and later, assistant director.
“It sort of brought together everything that I love about Jewish education and all the critical issues I like thinking about, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish identity, so it was a really good fit,” she said.
Chard-Yaron moved to Austin at the end of May and her first day as executive director at Texas Hillel was June 12.
With a graduate degree in Jewish education, she brings to the position a unique perspective.
“I want us to be thinking really what it means for Hillel to be an educational institution. That doesn't always mean classes in a classroom, but for us to be approaching everything that we're doing with students through a lens of Jewish identity, growth and critical thinking, helping students really find new pathways in Judaism that they might not have had before,” she added.
Every day, Chard-Yaron’s experience as an athlete also comes into her work with Hillel. She explained that it has to do with being a captain of a team, working with staff and reminding colleagues that all are working together toward the same goal.
“A little healthy competition, I think, can be good in terms of us striving to want to be better and learn from mistakes and take one on the chin if something doesn't go your way, but what are we doing to get it better for next time,” she added.
Now that she is at Texas Hillel’s helm, Chard-Yaron said she feels fortunate to come into a Hillel with great energy, a solid foundation and a tradition of doing excellent work with students and the community.
“Hillel’s vision is a world where every Jewish student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. Texas Hillel is doing an incredible job of cultivating student leaders, providing students with opportunities to learn and explore Judaism and Israel, and building a strong community by nurturing friendships and connections between people, many of which endure beyond a student’s time on campus,” she said.
Chard-Yaron explained that now is a moment for Texas Hillel leaders to take stock of where the organization has been successful; to focus on the areas where they can continue to build upon and grow in both breadth, the number of students they are reaching, and depth, the variety of experiences they are offering; and to craft the organization’s vision and strategy for this year and beyond.
“That's great, to come into a new situation but feel like you're starting from a place of strength, which is exciting,” she said.
In her early weeks at Texas Hillel, Chard-Yaron is doing a lot of listening and learning from students, community members, alumni and parents, hearing about their experiences with Texas Hillel.
“While I have spent several years with Hillel working on campus, every campus and every Hillel is unique. These first few weeks have been about immersing myself in all things UT and Texas Hillel,” Chard-Yaron said. ■
For more information on Texas Hillel, visit texashillel.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.