University chooses Stern to serve as acting director of religious and spiritual life
The University appointed Rabbi Elisabeth “Liza” Weiss Stern as acting director of religious and spiritual life late this summer on Aug. 4.
Stern’s affiliation with the University began 18 years ago, when she served as an adjunct professor of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership program. In the past year, she began serving the University as a Jewish Chaplain.
In an interview with the Justice, Stern defined her position as getting to help Brandeis, “a fantastic place with phenomenal students and faculty,” get better at what it is already doing.
Stern’s goal, and that of the Department of Religious and Spiritual Life as a whole, is to broaden the services of the chaplaincy, so that even students who do not identify with one religion or another can understand that chaplains can help or support them, she said.
Rather than creating more programs, the department is interested in supporting the ones that already exist on campus.
More so, Stern and her fellow chaplains are hoping to build personal recognition within the community.
“I think everyone has spiritual needs, whether or not they identify as a religious person in one way or another … Providing spiritual support is not the same thing as being a counselor, but it is helping individuals when they encounter bumps in the road,” Stern said.
“Right now in our world there are issues that are intruding on college life, in which our own community’s members are affected,” said Stern, who referenced to recent hardships, such as the hurricane in Florida and the announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals repeal.
In these times of need or of the normal stresses that come with a college career, Stern encourages students to approach any of the chaplains if they need a consoling presence that can help them access their prayers or spiritual stability. “You don’t have to be a card-carrying Catholic or a card-carrying Jew to say, ‘Actually a chaplain might help me just think through or feel through whatever it is that’s weighing me down.’”
Stern said that college is not only about what you’re learning academically but also about how one is evolving as a human being. The chaplains are here to support people in the fullness of their lives. “Not just one piece or another, not just academically, not just religious identification — but really, the whole person,” she said.
Furthermore, it is Stern’s objective to build an umbrella community and space for individuals of all spiritualities to come together, she said.
“The chaplaincies at Brandeis, for very legitimate reasons, have been very isolated from one another and not as visible as a chaplaincy should be,” said Stern.
The chaplains themselves are not isolated from each other, but what they are doing on campus has often been isolated to already self-defined religious communities, she clarified.
“The campus built three chapels, and it was a beautiful egalitarian gesture of respect and recognition for the three major American religions of the time. They’re beautiful, they’re equal, they don’t cast shadows on each other — we all know this.”
These spaces were built to be a place for everyone to come together, yet with the growth of the University, there was eventually a lack of space on campus for growing religious populations.
In recent years, there has been a formation of Muslim and Dharmic prayer spaces, yet these spaces are spread and divided from the three original chapels.
“It has become a metaphor of what has happened at Brandeis — there are beautiful opportunities for groups to do their own thing, but the larger experience, it hasn’t yet been accommodated. … So I think that that’s what I’m trying to do metaphorically, is create a space, even if it’s a psychic space, where all the different religions are included,” said Stern
Stern seeks to establish a resourceful connection, even for “nones,” those who don’t identify as religious or perhaps identify culturally with a religion without practice.
Traditionally, the chaplain is understood as functionary for religious individuals, and typically those “nones” are never going to connect with a chaplain, said Stern.
However, “My goal is that every student graduating will at least know who a chaplain at Brandeis is — maybe they talked to them, or maybe they just talked to them on a path,” said Stern, who is passionate about all students on campus feeling supported spiritually by the presence of chaplains who care about them as people.
“It’s an amazing place; there’s all these bright and incredible students who really want to learn and are really curious, and I have this attitude that I can actually be helpful to them. I have my own five children … and helping Brandeis students are what I hope people are doing for my own children wherever it is they are — helping them believe in themselves, discover their strengths and begin to understand that passion and kindness win the day,” Stern said.
“I get to do it here on this campus. … I have the best job in the world,” Stern said.