10 Years on the Job at UCLA, OU Torah Educators Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan Reflect on Students Past, Present and Future

May 29, 2014
Kaplans
Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan

Ten years is a lifetime in college, but Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan aren’t going anywhere. The Kaplans, the longest serving Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple, have been at UCLA for a decade and their achievement is being celebrated at the OU West Coast Annual Awards Banquet on June 18 at the Sephardic Temple.

“Someone once told me that staying at college keeps you sharp — intellectually, socially and physically — and we’re trying to buy into that theory,” laughed Sharona.

The two arrived way back in 2004, when a small social media website called The Facebook was being rolled out to their campus. The two are part of the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which was founded in 2001 by Rabbi Menachem Schrader. The program places an Orthodox couple on a secular college campus to help Orthodox students navigate the new phase of their lives. Aryeh had been studying for semicha at Yeshiva University and Sharona had just finished a degree in social work. UCLA had a relatively large Jewish population and the seeds for Orthodox life had already been planted by another JLIC couple. Hillel had just built a new building and the timing couldn’t have been better. The first thing the two did was to institute Shabbat and holiday lunches which allowed them to build a core group of dedicated college students.

The importance of that small group was something the two had learned during their time with New Jersey NCSY, where they first met. “We had a solid group of friends and we were doing worthwhile things,” Sharona explained. “It shaped us. I credit NCSY and its summer programs. They were a part of our lives and shaped our career choices. They invested in us and empowered us.”

From Shabbat meals the couple gradually expanded into other programming, including a dizzying array of lectures and activities for students on the campus. (Their most popular activity is still “Pizza and Parsha,” which brings in speakers from the larger L.A. Jewish community.) Along the way, Sharona and Aryeh witnessed their first students graduate and marry and a new crop of students take their place.

The Kaplans have four children: Shalva, 9, Barak, 7, Rivky 5, Yakir, 4, each of whom consider themselves a California native. “They think we’re foreigners and they laugh at our New Jersey accents,” said Aryeh.

Another advantage to being on campus for so long, the Kaplans say, is it enables them to have deeper relationships with their students even after they graduate. Aryeh recently celebrated the medical commencement ceremony for one student whom he drove to class on the student’s first day of college. Later this month, Aryeh will be officiating at that same student’s wedding.

“They capture the quintessence of what the program is about, with their passion, sincerity, overwhelming warmth and care for the students, and substantive approach to Jewish ideas and values,” commented Rabbi Ilan Haber, national director of the JLIC program. “On a personal level, I learn so much and am inspired regularly through my interactions with them.”

The family has no plans to leave California.

“We love the students,” Aryeh said, adding that he hoped the celebration of their 10 years would help broaden JLIC’s efforts on the West Coast. “On the East Coast, JLIC is much more well-known, but we’re really hoping to publicize JLIC here and make a West Coast branch.”

Both Aryeh and Sharon attributed their longevity to their convivial relationship with the other Jewish organizations on campus as well as their relationship and proximity to the larger Orthodox community, where their children attend day school. They also attribute their longevity to the students.

“In the Modern Orthodox community, the mantra is that ‘I hope they survive’ secular college,” explained Aryeh. “We’re trying to change that. It’s not about surviving. It’s about thriving. We feel that the kids have a lot of potential. They give us a lot of chizuk (strength).”