Inspiration

Superheroes Without Capes

May 21, 2014

The JLIC Couple Bringing Orthodoxy to Life at Queens College

Robby and Shoshana Charnoff
Robby and Shoshana Charnoff

Rabbi Robby and Shoshana Charnoff have a rule: dinner at six o’clock at their attached house located 15 minutes away from the Queens College campus; otherwise the two won’t see each other. Frequently dinner doesn’t start on time as they are met on their way out of the college by students needing to talk about something: dating, faith, learning or just to say hello to the popular educators.

Robby and Shoshana Charnoff are part of the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. Founded in 2001 by Rabbi Menachem Schrader, and funded by the OU, as well as by Hillel and private donations, the program puts an Orthodox family on college campuses across the United States and Canada. By dint of the heavy concentration of Jewish families in New York, Queens College, part of the City University of New York, has the largest Orthodox college student population aside from Yeshiva University. Consequently, Robby and Shoshana are very, very busy.

“There was something about Queens College that spoke to me,” Robby recalled as he and Shoshana sat in a small studio of the recently-remodeled Queens College Hillel. Robby was a few minutes late to the interview, caught on his way by a student who asked him about one of the JLIC’s forthcoming programs. Given the large Torah-observant population, the two joke that the first question they often get when they announce a new learning program is whether the program will be only for one gender. (Many of the students prefer it that way.)

Robby leading a shuir. (Shoshana Charnoff)
Robby leading a shuir. (Shoshana Charnoff)

“The students that [the Charnoffs] work with on a regular basis see them as tremendous resources,” explained Uri Cohen, director of the Queens College Hillel. The salary of the JLIC couple is paid in part by the OU, Hillel and private donors. “For students they’re mentors, confidantes and people who can support them in their Jewish journey.”

The two and their daughter, Aliza, took a circuitous path to becoming a JLIC family. Years before, the two had been dead-set on making Aliyah, with Robby even considering giving up a budding rabbinic career to become a electrician in order to financially survive in the Holy Land. After a tough conversation they decided to come back to America for a few years so that Robby could finish his ordination and begin his career as a rabbi. While applying for pulpit jobs, Robby received an offer for an assistant rabbi position at a prominent shul in another part of the country. That was when a friend and JLIC rabbi, Gideon Black of NYU, brought up the idea of becoming a JLIC rabbi.

“It’s all the upshots of a pulpit, with none of the shul politics,” Robby said. “What about this wouldn’t be exciting to me?”

Shoshana leading a class at the Queens College Hillel's new Beit Meidrash. (Shoshana Charnoff)
Shoshana leading a class at the Queens College Hillel’s new Beit Meidrash. (Shoshana Charnoff)

The job especially appealed to Shoshana since both husband and wife of a JLIC couple are hired by the program: the husband as a full-time employee and the wife as a part-time employee. “JLIC is quite unique in the rabbinical world, where the rebbetzin is seen as a full-fledged part of the rabbinic team, and fully compensated for her work.”

As part of the JLIC hiring process, the couple interviewed with Rabbi Menachem Shrader and the leaders of JLIC and then met student leaders on campus who made the final decision about the couple. During their interview, Robby and Shoshana spent a lot of time listening in as the students engaged in a heated discussion about what Orthodoxy meant to them on campus.

“I was already falling in love with the campus,” Robby said. “The students were fully engaged in what Orthodox life meant to them.”

After the students requested the Charnoffs as their JLIC couple, the Charnoffs faced a difficult decision between the pulpit and Queens College. They turned to Rabbi Menachem Penner, the dean of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Robby’s mentor. Rabbi Penner told them that their best interests were in going to work for the shul, but for klal Yisrael, they should go to Queens College.

A month after the Charnoffs decided to accept the position they hosted student leaders for a Shabbaton in their cramped Upper West Side apartment, where they already began the early stages of community building with the students. The two, with a newborn daughter in tow, moved to Queens shortly after.

Queens College students celebrating Chanukah. (Shoshana Charnoff)
Queens College students celebrating Chanukah. (Shoshana Charnoff)

Despite having a significant Orthodox population, Queens College faces a unique challenge. There is a relatively new campus dorm that houses fifty Orthodox students, several hundred live in local apartments, and the rest of the students commute to and from school. The Charnoffs, working with Cohen and student leaders, sought to develop a community on the campus. The two give shiurim during the week and continue to ramp up Shabbat and holidays on campus. Every week that school is in session, Robby leads Friday night services and delivers a drasha.  Shabbat continues with morning services and a student led kiddush. As Shabbat wanes, Shoshana and Robby host students in their house for a moving seudah shlishit complete with homemade food, Torah and singing. Most Shabbatot, anywhere from 20-70 students crowd into the Charnoff home.

Eliana Steinreich, a psychology student who lives in Queens, said that life in Queens College changed dramatically between her first year on campus and her second, when the Charnoffs arrived.

“There was a big difference between the first and second year on campus,” she said, adding that the seudah shlishit, “gives people a Shabbat experience that they might not have had otherwise.”

Beyond in-depth learning, the Charnoffs also offer other programming, like sushi making, hip-dancing, challah baking with Shoshana, and Marvel movie nights by Robby. Robby has almost encyclopedic knowledge of the world of superheroes (though, “only Marvel,” he explained). As a high school student, Robby invited then editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Joe Quesada to his high school and Quesada brought him in as an intern for Robby’s last two summers in high school, where he edited comics like Spiderman, X-Men, and Avengers.

“The Charnoffs are superheroes without capes” said Rabbi Joshua Ross, deputy director of JLIC. “But the work that Robby and Shoshana do is far more impressive. Thanks to their endless efforts there are constant shiurim, chevrusas and general learning opportunities for Jewish students at Queens from all backgrounds, to say nothing of all the meals they host in their home. While they cannot leap over buildings in a single bound they are clearly a super JLIC educator couple.”

Aharon Hammer, 22, the former head of religious life for the Queens College Hillel and a graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, said that the Charnoffs help students figure out where they stand religiously in a tumultuous time in their lives.

“How to effectively balance their Judaism is a very difficult question,” he said. “The Charnoffs provide a great service. They’re always there to talk and provide learning opportunities. Students are grateful for this given the overall difficulty of what life at a secular college can be.”

This is only the beginning for the Charnoffs though. Their next plan is the launch of an intense midrasha/learning program for women on campus that was developed with several female student leaders.

Describing their work the two concluded:

“We try to let the students know there is a community on campus; a warm open house that they can always come to,” Robby said. “We want them to know that they are part of a JLIC family.”

“We also try set a personal example,” Shoshana said. “And even more-so, we aim to be there for the students for whatever they need. Whether they are dating, coping with personal loss, or just need someone to talk to. That’s what we’re here for. Because as big as this community is, everyone needs a personal connection.”

Check out this video that Shoshana created about the Queens College JLIC:

And this one, celebrating their first year at Queens.