Strengthening Orthodoxy on Campus

by | in President's Message

Let me tell you about Sam (not his real name), whose story was sent to me by one of our on-campus JLIC (the OU’s Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) educators. Sam came from a well-grounded Modern Orthodox family and attended a prominent Jewish day school and high school. He spent the usual year in Israel, though perhaps he spent more time than he should have hanging out with friends rather than learning in the beit midrash. When he came home from Israel, Sam went to a state university, which his parents found more affordable than a Jewish college, and Sam didn’t object.

Although Sam gravitated to Hillel and Chabad during his first year on campus, the friends he made were Jewish, but unaffiliated. His commitment to davening and keeping kosher gradually eroded, and Friday nights became the time for partying.

But sometime late in his freshman year he was introduced to a rabbi whom other students thought was “cool.” He seemed to be interested in talking with students about their issues and problems without any hidden agenda. The rabbi had himself been to university and understood the challenges. Sam agreed to join him and his wife for a Shabbat dinner at their home.

Dinner was a surprisingly relaxed affair—completely counter to Sam’s expectations. The rabbi talked about sports, and his wife, clearly a well-informed college graduate, also engaged him in conversation. Yes, Torah was a part of the discussion, but it didn’t feel forced upon Sam, nor did he feel like he was being judged. After a second such dinner, Sam starting meeting the rabbi for an occasional coffee and chat. Sam confessed that he felt ignorant of Judaism despite his day school background; this led to a chavruta between Sam and the rabbi, which became a priority to Sam as he progressed in his college career.

By his junior year, Sam was attending daily minyan, observing kashrut and enjoying learning—for the first time in his life. He had not returned to his previous level of commitment; he had surpassed it. Sam is now married and remains close with his JLIC mentors.

This story, while remarkable, is far from unique. It is a testament to the efficacy of JLIC, founded twelve years ago in response to the reality that graduates of Orthodox yeshivah high schools were enrolling in increasing numbers at secular colleges and universities. Let’s face it: some 75 to 80 percent of Orthodox day school graduates attend secular universities, with the result that the future of Modern Orthodoxy is incubating on secular college campuses. While those Orthodox students who end up shedding their practices and beliefs are admittedly in the minority, that minority (25 percent according to an AviChai Foundation report) is sizable enough to warrant great concern.

On campus, Orthodox college students, most of whom have attended only Jewish schools up to this point in their lives, become part and parcel of the wider university community. This community has a very different understanding of what God, family life, male-female relations, Israel and a lot of other subjects are all about. Many students, left to themselves, will absorb at least some of its messages, as Sam did. If we let this go unchallenged, we will lose some of the brightest and most promising future leaders of Orthodox Jewry. The role of JLIC is to provide a buffer, a Torah perspective on all of the new challenges our sons and daughters face. The men need a personal example. The women need a personal example. The couples pairing off need a personal example. JLIC is there to provide this for them.

But JLIC is there not only to save the 25 percent  whom we know will waver. Our couples bolster the commitment of all Orthodox students—to maintain davening the way a Torah Jew davens, to maintain learning the way a Torah Jew learns, to maintain a kosher diet the way a Torah Jew keeps kosher, to date the way a Torah Jew dates, to celebrate Israel the way a Torah Jew celebrates Israel—in short, to enable them to receive a broad university education and to participate in university life while maintaining an uncompromising commitment to being a Torah Jew.

Approximately 3,200 Orthodox students attend campuses where JLIC now operates. That’s more than the population of Yeshiva College, Stern College and the YU Israel programs combined. OU NextGen Director Rabbi David Felsenthal calls JLIC “perhaps the most important part of the OU’s NextGen Division because, for as many new students we might bring into our fold, without JLIC creating strong communities on campuses we would lose so many more.”

Under the leadership of JLIC National Director Rabbi Ilan Haber, the JLIC Torah educators, many of whom have themselves been educated at secular colleges, serve as a dependable presence on campus, providing support, encouragement, halachic advice and an array of personal and communal Jewish learning opportunities. JLIC only hires couples, so as to provide both male and female role models and educators for students. In the words of one JLIC participant, “Their leadership and their feeling of warmth and concern for every student that they meet . . . and the guidance, both spiritual and halachic, they give to students, are the most important part of their work.”

At the OU, we are allocating increasing financial and human resources to JLIC. The vital nature of this work once again became painfully clear with the release in June of the UJA-Federation of New York population study, which revealed that although the New York Jewish population is growing, this growth is restricted to the Orthodox community, and particularly to its most intensely-observant segments. Once the perspective shifts to the wider Jewish world, we see that the overall population continues to shrink. The survey’s release has resulted in an increasing focus on formal and informal Jewish education as the lifeblood of Jewish survival.

Even as our population grows, there are plentiful reminders that success does not come without its costs. The secular campus will continue to be the focal point of spiritual challenges to our young people, and since the trend of yeshivah graduates attending secular schools shows no signs of abating, JLIC must be strengthened for the years ahead.

OU lay and professional leaders, under the guidance of Stanley Weinstein of Miami Beach, chair of the JLIC Commission, are developing plans to add three campuses a year for the next five years. To that end, we have been focusing on development activities on each campus which have become a requirement to keep the program there. In addition, the Orthodox Union is prepared to provide up to one half of the cost needed to place a couple on a campus provided there is a similar three-year commitment by the local community.

As part of this effort, we are encouraging OU synagogues to engage in development activities on behalf of their local JLIC program or to help establish a JLIC program on a campus near their community. One far-sighted rabbi, ahead of the curve, has called on his congregation to take responsibility in supporting the JLIC program on a nearby campus where it has already been established for several years; we will seek to have that model duplicated nationwide. At the same time, we will continue our excellent partnership with Hillel to meet the needs of our campus populations.

Finally, let’s reiterate that JLIC is not about kiruv. It’s about protecting the young people of our own observant families who are entering environments where their Yiddishkeit is greatly at risk. And with all the funds that are spent on kiruv, can we say that our children, who enter university life as committed Jews, are any less worthy?

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2012.

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