In recognition of her leadership in Jewish education over the past 10 years, the Covenant Foundation named Maiya Chard-Yaron a 2018 Pomegranate Prize recipient. The award celebrates the influence of top Jewish educators by encouraging prize recipients in their pursuits and enabling them to accelerate their professional development.
In just over two years as the executive director at Texas Hillel, Maiya has helped reimagine Jewish life on campus. Through a focused educational approach and a commitment to community building, she has helped bring transformational experiences and opportunities to hundreds of students.
In this Q&A, Maiya discusses Hillel’s role as an educational institution and reflects on the lessons she’s learned throughout her own Hillel journey.
Q: The Pomegranate Prize empowers leaders to take risks and make an impact in the world of Jewish education. What’s a risk you’ve taken at Texas that you’ve been particularly proud of?
Right now, we are in an exciting moment of transition where we are taking a fresh look at our Jewish educational programming and what it means to be a pluralistic Jewish institution on campus. As our students evolve, so does our Hillel programming. We’re starting to introduce the idea of hosting Shabbat programs outside of our building, as well as thinking creativity on how we can adapt our annual Israel block party. I’ll also be leading a group of 20-25 campus leaders to Israel and Palestinian territories. This inaugural trip will be a timely and game changing experience for our campus.
Q: You have an interesting background in that you received a master’s in experiential Jewish education and were also a member of the Israeli national softball team. How have these parts of your identity influenced you as a leader?
A perspective I’ve always tried to take with me, and one that was emphasized during my master’s program, is looking at how we merge education and identity. How is the work we are doing impacting student growth? How do students learn and how are we setting up experiences to support them? This perspective dictates everything else for me. I’m very proud that you can be an executive in the Jewish community and still think about those two components and how they interact. Hillel at our core is an educational institution and we can’t drift too far away from that.
Being an athlete helped me understand what it means to be part of a team working towards a common goal. For our team at Hillel, I try to instill a healthy competitive spirit that can motivate us as a group. As a leader, my sports background has also helped me learn how to cope with setbacks. I played softball, which at times, can be a game of failure. I’ve used those moments as lessons on how to not let defeats stop you.
Q: How did you approach your first few months as the new executive director at Texas Hillel?
The minute you step into the role as an executive director, you are presented with a whole new set of pressures and challenges. I focused on getting involved in the community as much as possible. Through campus-wide events, I met as many people as I could and shared our Hillel story. From there, everything else became easier. As a new leader during a time of transition, I was conscious of simultaneously respecting the tradition of Texas Hillel while also introducing new ideas and keeping my eyes open on what we can do differently for the future.
Q: You emphasize Hillel being an educational institution at its core. What are the qualities that make up a successful educational institution and how have you been able to integrate those qualities at Texas?
Our work is outcome focused but it differs from education in schools. We aren’t teaching towards a test or specific content areas, we are thinking about the whole Hillel movement. Our focus is on providing students with experiences that will enable them to become thoughtful Jewish adults well beyond their time on campus.
When we build a new program, we care about the quality and outcome, but we equally value the process students will go through in creating it. This process can be a transformative moment for a student and their Jewish identity.
Q: After working in the Hillel movement for 10 years, do you have any advice for fellow Hillel professionals?
With everything happening at such a fast pace at Hillel, our work requires so much on the job learning. During each stage of my Hillel career, there have been professionals I’ve looked up to as mentors. I’ve been able to pick up the phone and ask them questions. I think that’s a benefit of being a Hillel professional – we are all so well connected. It really feels like a movement. My advice is to take advantage of that and to be open to learning from others who might be one step ahead in their careers.
— Eliana Brown