Talking with … Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Educator

By Categories: In the Media

August 5 |
Jan L. HolmgrenName: Jan L. Holmgren
Age: 67
City: Oakland
Position: Education consultant, UpStart board chair
J: You have an interesting background. Brought up Lutheran in Chicago, you studied and taught linguistics and English, served as vice provost at Princeton University, and then became president of Mills College in Oakland, a post you held for 20 years. What drew you to lead a women’s college?
Jan Holmgren:
I had never seen Mills or been engaged with the Bay Area, but several people told me, “You have such a passion for women’s empowerment and women’s rights, we’re going to nominate you.” I came for several interviews and truly fell in love with the college. I had a strong, supportive board and a great base in the community.
It was while at Mills that you converted to Judaism, becoming the college’s first Jewish president. What brought you to that decision?
Before I moved to California in 1991, I’d had a wide range of Jewish friends and many opportunities — personally and in public life — that had led me to believe that Judaism was a good place for me in terms of my values and my interest in social justice. I had Jewish friends at Princeton, including its first Jewish president, Harold Shapiro. I was influenced by Judaism not only by the values but by the generosity, the strong desire to give back. So a year or two after I came to Mills, I joined [late philanthropist] Warren Hellman’s Torah study group at his San Francisco office.
That’s an interesting connection. How did it come about?
Warren served on the board at Mills. When he invited me to join the Torah study group, it felt right to me. In 2000, I converted. The person who led me to that is Rabbi Patty Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean for religious life at Stanford. She became my guide and was an amazing support. Patty arranged for my beit din. Being Jewish became an important part of my public and private life.
Did growing up Lutheran have any influence on your decision to convert?
Lutheranism was an important part of my family’s value system. I learned both a commitment to being engaged with other people and caring deeply about humanity. There was also a philanthropic element.
You were president at a women’s college and have always championed progress for women. What was your reaction to seeing the first woman nominated by a major party for the U.S. presidency last week?
For me it is almost wondrous beyond words. It’s been a passion of mine all my adult life to find ways to level the playing field and find opportunities to empower and engage women. I first met Hillary Clinton in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. I was there in 1995 at the conference on women in Beijing, along with Hillary, Benazir Bhutto [former Pakistani prime minister assassinated in 2007] and so many other amazing women of the era. This is going to be a rough campaign, but it’s something to rejoice about and take pride in.
Are you still involved with any educational projects?
I am president emerita of Mills. I work as an independent consultant for higher education and I serve as a senior consultant for several governing boards. Sometimes I take on an occasional project for a group or foundation. My position at UpStart is a volunteer position.
You are board chair of that incubator for innovative Jewish nonprofits. How did your relationship with the organization develop?
After I left Mills, I was very interested in the ways in which technology was changing education. Toby Rubin, one of the UpStart founders, is a personal friend. Toby was my bridge onto the board in 2014. The next year, I was involved as a co-chair of the search committee looking for a new CEO, and in December 2015 I was asked to chair the board.
Was there anything personal that attracted you to UpStart?
As a convert to Judaism, I’m always looking to find a path into it. UpStart is intended to enlarge participation and engagement with Jewish life. It really leads the way in pioneering new ways of thinking about the Jewish community. I love the concept, and I’m interested in all aspects of it.
Since its founding in 2004, UpStart has helped cultivate 44 Jewish startups, organizations that now reach more than 500,000 people each year around the country and in Israel. What are examples of success stories that have impressed you?
Urban Adamah, Edah/Studio 70 and Moishe House all now are international. Fair Trade Judaica has certainly grown into its own. Bimbam, which makes Jewish videos and apps, is another. And Fuente Latina, based in Jerusalem, provides news about Israel in Spanish worldwide. I’ve been drawn to Orot in Chicago, which does programs that enable deep study in Torah and Talmud in a way that goes to the community, and involves body as well as mind.

You’re a member of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. As a trained linguist, have you been able to master either biblical or modern Hebrew?
I’ve undertaken the study of Hebrew a number of times. I still haven’t nailed it.

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