What Does It Take to Build an Orthodox Community on Campus?

by | in Faith

 

university

Start a child upon his path, even when he ages he will not stray from it” (Mishlei 22:6). This verse, in its straightforward meaning (and as expounded by Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira in his introduction to Chovat Hatalmidim, contra the trend to cite the well-known first half of the verse while ignoring the crucial second part), is an if-then statement that uses a road as a metaphor for life. If a child is accompanied as he takes those crucial first steps, then he will remain true to that path even later on, when he or she is no longer accompanied. In other words, the goal of Jewish education is for students to have internalized the lessons of their parents and teachers to the point that they uphold them even once they become responsible for their own decisions.

For many Orthodox students, arriving in college is the moment that hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in day schools, summer camps and gap-year programs are put to the test. On campus, for better or worse, commitment to Torah and mitzvot is a matter of autonomous choice, and college students, including Orthodox students, often become intoxicated (literally, in many cases) with the newfound freedoms of campus life and take the opportunity to experiment with new ideas, activities and identities. The flip side of this trend is that students will often resist attempts to assert authority over their lives, especially if they associate such authority figures with their parents. Broadly speaking, these insights are the keys to understanding the dynamics of campus communities and the role of rabbis and educators within them.

On campus . . . there are always students checking out Orthodoxy as well as checking out of Orthodoxy.

It should be noted that there is a great variety of Orthodox campus communities, which differ from one another to the same degree as ordinary Orthodox communities. My comments apply mainly to universities where students live primarily on campus and where there are enough Orthodox students to support communal life. Nevertheless, some observations may apply to schools with tiny Orthodox populations as well as to schools with a significant number of Orthodox commuters. I should also note that my observations stem mainly from my experience serving as a Torah educator for the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at the University of Maryland from 2004 to 2006. (JLIC is an Orthodox Union-sponsored program that helps Orthodox students navigate the college environment.) Things have certainly changed since then, but these insights are general enough that they still hold true.

On campus, the boundaries of the Orthodox community tend to be fluid. In most cases, minyanim, Shabbat, meals and Torah study take place in the Hillel or another space designated for the broader Jewish student population. Orthodox student associations thus share space with a multitude of other religious and cultural streams, leading to closer relationships than are the norm for Orthodox communities and often to situations beyond the comfort zone of many Orthodox students. Moreover, as noted, students experiment with new lifestyles, meaning that there are always students checking out Orthodoxy as well as checking out of Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Noah Cheses ( far left), JLIC educator at Yale, together with his students on a Tanach study trip in Israel. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Cheses

Rabbi Noah Cheses ( far left), JLIC educator at Yale, together with his students on a Tanach study trip in Israel. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Cheses

Given this situation, some Orthodox campus communities err on the side of religious caution and try to isolate themselves from the broader Hillel culture. In the best case scenario, however, the Orthodox community will successfully balance its internal needs with the demands of shared space. The presence of a JLIC couple is often the key to this balance, as they have a deeper understanding of the contours of acceptable compromises and accommodations. For example, under the guidance of a JLIC rabbi, the Orthodox association might reach a compromise under which a member of the Conservative association (often a woman) recites Kiddush on Shabbat morning, while an Orthodox (male) student recites Havdalah (see Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim 271:2, and ask your local Orthodox rabbi about the practice that is right for your family and community).

Show me a rabbi who is said to have built a community, and I will show you a man who was at the right place at the right time.

Show me a rabbi who is said to have built a community, and I will show you a man who was at the right place at the right time. Even the greatest community rabbi will not succeed without the raw materials of a committed laity and a host of conditions that make continued growth and success feasible. This is especially true of campus communities, where the entire membership turns over every four years and where one year’s trendy destination may fall from grace the following year due to factors out of the rabbi’s hands (like ranking and recession). Nevertheless, there is a snowball effect in which Orthodox students gravitate toward schools with strong Orthodox communities, and so sustained success requires that new student leaders be cultivated every year by outgoing student leaders. It is thus students who build and maintain Orthodox communities on campus.

Nevertheless, Torah educators can play a decisive role in this endeavor as well. Although Orthodox campus educators work with students just a few months removed from high school or yeshivah, college students expect to be treated as adults capable of making their own decisions and respond more positively to the initiatives of their peers than to top-down initiatives of authority figures. Thus, educators build a campus community by empowering students. Community-enhancing projects tend to fall flat unless students buy in and take ownership of them. Of course, such empowerment may be a mere façade for the educator’s efforts, but in this case, as in many others, the perception is more important than the reality.

Preferably, though, the campus educators truly empower their students, and not just to lead campus communities. After all, many of tomorrow’s Orthodox lay leaders will attend secular colleges, making college campuses a proving ground for Jewish communal leadership—a place where tomorrow’s leaders gain experience with many facets of Jewish communal life.

Rabbi Elli Fischer is a writer and translator from Modiin, by way of Baltimore. He and his wife, Pesha, directed the OU’s Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at the University of Maryland from 2004 to 2006.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

Leave a Comment