JLI Couples Add to Campus Life
November 29, 2004Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friendBy Abigail Klein Leichman
When Sara Kranzler of Teaneck was visiting college campuses after a year of study in Israel, there was one particular class that stood out in her mind, and it wasn't listed in any course catalogue. It was a shiur, or Jewish studies lecture, given by Rabbi Aharon Frazer – also a Teaneck native – at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
"It had a huge part in why I chose to go to Brandeis as opposed to Hopkins," said Kranzler, a sophomore.
Frazer and his wife, Adena (who also grew up in Teaneck), are spending a couple of years on the Brandeis campus as part of a four-year-old program that aims to better provide for the needs of religiously observant college students. The Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus has placed young rabbis and their wives, like the Frazers, at Brandeis, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Cornell University, University of Illinois – Champaign/Urbana, University of Maryland – College Park, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, UCLA and Yale. Many of them come from North Jersey, as do many of the students with whom they interact.
JLIC is jointly sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and Torah MiTzion, a project that sends young Israeli couples to offer educational programs in American Jewish communities. Though most campuses have active Hillel organizations, Hillel staffers often lack the resources to offer intensive learning opportunities and halachic guidance to Orthodox students. JLIC couples work with Hillel's professional staff and generally stay about three years.
"JLIC contributes to a setting in which Orthodox students can be comfortable in an atmosphere on secular campuses that is far different from what they experienced in their pre-college yeshiva educations," said Steve Steiner, an OU spokesman. "Through the easy availability of Torah study, daily, Shabbat and holiday synagogue services, and kosher food, together with counseling and interaction with their peers, Orthodox students find a haven at the university in which their yeshiva experiences are transferred to the campus – while at the same time they are participating in the academic life of their college. In addition, JLIC welcomes non-Orthodox students interested in deepening their Jewish knowledge and observance."
Shai Romirowsky, a University of Maryland freshman who graduated from Solomon Schechter High School in West Orange, was grabbing a bite at the campus Hillel early this semester, and he overheard JLIC Rabbi Elli Fischer learning Torah with a group of students over lunch. "I pulled him aside and asked about learning a little bit," said Romirowsky, whose family belongs to the Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. "We did a one-on-one shiur discussing some of the wording that's different in the siddur during the 10 days of repentance."
This is the first year JLIC is operating at Maryland, but it was a logical place to expand the program, said Rabbi Menachem Schrader, the Jeruslaem-based founding director of JLIC. "The University of Maryland at College Park has one of the largest populations of both Orthodox Jewish students as well as overall Jewish students in the United States. The Hillel director, Rabbi Ari Israel, has been very interested and anxious to open a JLIC program. Our Torah educators, Rabbi Elli and Pesha Fischer, are experienced, intellectual, outgoing, and dynamic. With God's help we should have a very successful program."
There are 6,000 Jewish students, 300 of them Orthodox, out of a total student body of 35,000 at Maryland. By contrast, only a handful of Orthodox students attend UCLA, but the energetic JLIC couple there hopes to change that.
"We want to be the address on campus for kids coming from [a year of study in] Israel to continue doing Jewish learning along with academic learning," said Sharona Kaplan, who is on assignment at UCLA this year with her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Both are from Teaneck; in fact, Sharona Kaplan knew all about JLIC because her sister happens to be Adena Frazer. "Our subgoal is to let the Jewish community know there's another campus for Orthodox kids aside from the traditional options, and that there can be a full Jewish life here."
The Kaplans said they are using their experience from years of leadership roles with the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, as well as knowledge gained from Aryeh's rabbinical studies and Sharona's social work background, to help them work with students.
"We've become the morah d'asra [halachic authority] on campus," said Aryeh Kaplan. "We answer questions and do counseling, and we are working to build a Jewish infrastructure here, from daily minyan to learning programs for Orthodox kids to Shabbos lunch. This is the first year some kosher food is available on campus. We're the second JLIC couple and they created it from nothing. Now that it's in place, word is spreading, and we'll get 30 people at services, 25 to 30 at classes." The campus Hillel, Sharona Kaplan added, "respects and appreciates what's going on."
As on the other campuses, their efforts are not exclusively geared to Orthodox students. "I built a sukkah and ordered food for 15 people, and 60 showed up," said Aryeh Kaplan, "not all of them Orthodox, but curious."
His most popular class is a Thursday night exploration of the Torah portion of the week, dubbed "Parsha and Pizza," where he sometimes invites a guest speaker from the community or the Hillel staff. Sharona Kaplan holds a Monday night class for five women at the Hillel House, while Aryeh teaches a class at home for 12 men. He also leads Talmud study for 12 students and one professor at UCLA's law school, and both Kaplans are part of a rotation of speakers in an undergraduate course about world religions. "It's kind of like being head counselor and rabbi and mentor," said Sharona Kaplan.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Englewood native Rabbi Yehuda Seif and his wife, Orit, have been working since 2002 to enhance the Torah and Zionist activity within the campus' large Jewish community, which numbers some 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Yehuda Seif offers nightly classes on a range of topics, answers halachic questions, helps maintain the university's eruv, and does one-on-one learning, as does his wife.
"It definitely would not be as fulfilling spiritually at Penn if the Seifs weren't here," said Livia Levine, a sophomore from Teaneck. "One of the nicest things is that we try to get people learning together every night, and it wouldn't be possible without them. I talk to them often; because Rabbi Seif is from New Jersey and learned at Gush [Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel], where I attended the girls' yeshiva, he knows where I'm coming from, and he brings a younger perspective."
The fact that these rabbinic couples are just a few years older than the students they mentor does indeed make for close bonds. Jake Sebrow, an Orthodox Brandeis student from Teaneck, said the Frazers have become a fixture in the college's Jewish community. "We've watched their family grow with the addition of a baby girl, and we feel a sense of investment in their well-being and in the purposes which drew them to Brandeis," Sebrow said.
He added that the Frazers are "incredibly accessible and, while most of their work is done in tandem with the Orthodox community, they contribute essentially to the general Jewish community. This is more challenging than most people would think, especially on a campus where over 50 percent of the students are Jewish but 'inactive.' The Frazers do a great job of making their presence known, and I frequently see Rabbi and Adena Frazer learning with non-Orthodox students. As with most campuses with large self-sustaining Orthodox communities, some tension between denominations is inevitable, but the Frazers have certainly done their part to minimize those tensions, and they continue to do so."
Kranzler said she finds the couple's halachic expertise "very comforting when there are a lot of situations that come up." For instance, she said, after two students suffered the loss of a parent, the Frazers ran a program on the emotional aspects of giving comfort to the bereaved. They also hold classes about Shabbat and kashrut for students who are newly observant.
"Many kids came to Brandeis because it's a Jewish school," said Aharon Frazer, "but for many this is the most intense Jewish experience they've ever had. We try to address all the students' issues and integrate them on a social level. We wanted to go somewhere we could make a difference, and we thought it was possible at Brandeis."
Rabbi Jason and Meira Rappoport seek the same kind of balance at Yale, although they are dealing with a much smaller Jewish population. There are about 60 students who attend Orthodox services weekly. "We jiggle different foci in our aim to be appealing to all parts of the Jewish community here," said Rappoport. He offers everything from advanced Talmud classes to basic Jewish education and one-on-one mentoring. Whereas most JLIC couples are still childless or have one or two small children, the Rappoports have five youngsters whom they consider "junior JLIC emissaries." The family's presence lends a festive atmosphere to Shabbat meals, he said.
Eliezer Kahn, a doctoral candidate in engineering from Teaneck, attends Rappoport's Sunday "Pizza and Learning" along with about 20 other students. "I definitely feel having an Orthodox rabbi on campus is great," Kahn said. "It makes it feel as if we're part of a Jewish Orthodox community."
Because most of the JLIC couples are on Ivy League or upper-tier campuses, they are chosen not only because of their Jewish educations, said Steiner of the OU, but in many cases because of their secular educations, "which enable them to understand the situation facing yeshiva-educated young men and women who suddenly find themselves in a very different world."
Elli Fischer, who like his wife has a master's degree in Jewish education, said, "The future of Judaism in on college campuses right now. It's a testing ground for the future of Judaism in America."
This article is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Standard of Teaneck, N.J. It originally appeared in the Nov. 12, 2004 issue.