By Abigail Pickus
UpStart Bay Area has been supporting innovation in the Jewish community for almost a decade now.
And Maya Bernstein has been there since its inception. As its first hire by founder Toby Rubin, Bernstein came on board to help put its ideas into practice and has since helped design and implement its goals.
“In many ways, what I do with UpStart connects me to my upbringing,” said the 36-year-old.
Growing up in Riverdale, New York, Bernstein went to Rabbi Avi Weiss’s shul and was very influenced by him. (A beloved and controversial figure, Weiss’s many accomplishments include founding the first yeshiva to ordain Orthodox women as “spiritual leaders” or Maharat, otherwise known as rabbis.)
“His entire career has been about trying to create meaningful Jewish experiences in ways that speaks to people’s needs, whether it was fighting to free Soviet Jewry or coming up with ways to engage women that had never been done before,” she said.
The oldest of three siblings, Bernstein said she grew up chanting, ‘free Sharansky now,’” referring not only to Natan Sharansky and the free Soviet Jewry movement, but to a larger commitment to making the world a better place.
Her mother is a pediatric endocrinologist and her father works for Sesame Street, which was why, as a little girl, Bernstein spent time on the Sesame Street set. (She was in an episode with Grover where they follow an arrow.) Her dad also created Shalom Sesame, an adaptation of Sesame Street that introduces Judaism and Israel to children.
What Bernstein has taken from her upbringing and her parents, in particular, is that rare combination of bridging a traditional Jewish life with engaging in the world at large. “This affected me very deeply. I felt an imperative to maintain a vibrant, active connection to tradition but to also be really creative and honest with where we are as a people and what we need to do in the world,” she said.
After spending a gap year studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s yeshiva, in Jerusalem, she headed off to Columbia University. While she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life per se, she knew she loved languages. So she majored in Russian and minored in Chinese.
Every winter and summer break she went to Russia to teach at a Lauder Jewish camp.
“It was then that I had two epiphanies. The first was that my upbringing was a gift that I no longer took for granted. I had all of this knowledge that I could teach to others. The second was that had my great-grandparents not come to U.S. from Russia, I would have been one of those kids,” she said. “I had this strong feeling that I wanted to give back to the Jewish community, but I never expected to work in the Jewish community.”
After graduating from Columbia, Bernstein spent a month teaching English in China and then moved to Frankfurt, Germany, as a Lauder Fellow. There she worked for the Jewish community, teaching Hebrew to elderly Russians and running a program for teens.
From there she went on to Harvard to pursue a master’s in education.
Along the way, she married Noam Silverman, whom she met while working in Russia. A rabbi, he is the Principal of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day in Palo Alto.
The couple initially moved to California when Silverman was getting a Ph.D. in education at Stanford. They have four children, ages 9 to three months.
California has been good to Bernstein.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with California,” she said. “There’s the natural beauty for one, which is not a small thing. It’s a beautiful place to live. And the Jewish community has been extremely nourishing for me professionally. Over the past decade we’ve seen a real growth in Jewish life, with more and more programs, the JCCs expanding, and so many people interested in Jewish learning.”
What she’s experienced in terms of Jewish life in California she says is nothing short of a renaissance, a host of innovation that coincides with the growth of Silicon Valley.
“People are open to doing things differently here. I love that. It is so exciting that there is tremendous creativity happening here that is not happening on the East Coast,” she said. Even better, at Jewish events, people serve quinoa and vegetables, not meat and potatoes, “a metaphor that I love,” she added.
These days, Bernstein is a consultant for UpStart on specific projects, including one that is bringing innovation leadership tools to Jewish day schools in New York.
After all of these years, Bernstein is still excited about the people behind the projects that turn to UpStart for nurturing and support.
“That UpStart exists, that really smart people are taking really big risks by leaving solid careers or big paying jobs to go into this [launching a start-up to help the Jewish people] is a statement to the community that the work that they are doing is really important.”
But Bernstein also feels that the Jewish community should hardly rest on its laurels.
“Judaism is not going to stay relevant and meaningful forever. The fact that G-dcast and Wilderness Torah exist speak to the fact that so many Jews would otherwise go elsewhere,” she said. “I believe that Judaism has contributed so meaningfully to our lives and as Jews and to the world and we need to nourish that. We must keep bringing the wisdom of our tradition to the people who need it.”
Despite a hectic workload and a growing family, Bernstein is also a writer whose work has appeared in Lilith and Kveller, where she writes about parenting.
She is one of five young educators who received the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in 2012.
While Bernstein’s focus is currently on the Jewish community, she feels that won’t be forever.
“I am torn about being only involved in Jewish life. I hope to move into the secular world one day. I felt I needed to dedicate some of my time to nourish the Jewish world, but the point of the work is not to keep it internal but to ensure that its wisdom is enriching the world at large,” she said. “At the same time, if we don’t nurture it internally people aren’t going to be out there in the world speaking from a Jewish place, so that is important, too.”
“Maya Bernstein: Not Resting on Her Laurels” is part of a series on young Jewish adults – both entrepreneurs and communal professionals – making a difference in their world, and ours.