Meet Rabbi Jonathan and Jenny Shulman: New JLIC Couple at Penn
By Bayla Sheva Brenner
Boasting one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities on any U.S. secular campus, the University of Pennsylvania welcomed Rabbi Jonathan Shulman and his wife Jenny, the Orthodox Union’s new JLIC (Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) couple to the community this fall. The Shulmans’ look forward to furthering the success of the program, helping Penn’s more than 300 religious students maintain their observance, while inspiring them to greater growth and commitment. Based on their enthusiasm and preparedness – they’re in for high marks.
Every year, increasing numbers of Orthodox young men and women move out of the familiarity of their homes and communities into an unfamiliar and challenging environment. Responding to this dilemma, in 2000 the OU teamed up with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to launch JLIC, a program that has been sending young rabbinic couples to campuses across the country (currently numbering 15 including Canada), offering observant students inspiring Torah classes, daily minyanim, Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations, and personal counseling.
Succeeding Rabbi Mordechai and Limor Friedman, who during their four-year stay established a vibrant Orthodox resource at the Penn campus, the Shulmans plan to continue the dynamic programming initiated by their predecessors while generating much of their own. You might call it initiation by fire; the first day of classes fell on Erev Rosh Hashana. The couple got off to a rapid start.
From the first day of Rosh Hashana, through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, hundreds of students came to the minyanim, reports Rabbi Shulman, 37, originally from Washington D.C., who attended both Yeshivat Darchei Noam and the Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem. “It gave us a lot of time to meet a broad section of the community,” he says. “Now the work is to follow up, to get to know them in more depth.” He views that personal connection as essential. “They come here from the day school system and the post-high school yeshivas that look after their students, then they come here and there’s no one looking out for them. There’s no one to ask, ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘How was that test?’ That’s hard.” The Shulmans intend to provide that needed emotional resource.
They also serve as an exemplary role model of a happily committed Orthodox family. Their two children, Eliyahu, 5 and Chana, 2, feel right at home running around the Hillel offices. “The students get a taste of observant family life and get to feel that they are a part of it.” Meanwhile, says the JLIC rabbi, the little Shulmans are doing just fine figuring out how to be friends with 20-year-old college students.
“It’s all about creating relationships,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, National Director of JLIC, who stresses that the program’s primary aim is to cultivate a meaningful connection between the couples and the students. “The couples become an integral part of the campus community,” he says. “They live there, have students over for meals, hang out with them in the cafeteria, learn with them, and become a trusted accessible resource and support system.”
Rabbi Shulman hopes to also reach out to the not-yet-affiliated Jewish students. According to Hillel, Penn serves 2,500 Jewish undergraduates and 2,500 graduate students, coming from a wide range of backgrounds. “Something like 70 or 80 percent of Jewish students on campus come into the Hillel building at least once in a semester,” says Rabbi Shulman. “I think there’s room to make the Orthodox community more welcoming and more engaging to them.”
After eight years of JLIC at Penn, the Orthodox infrastructure is strong and largely student led. The Shulmans think the Torah classes have a lot to do with that. “This is a population you need to invest in – students who have such a personal commitment to Torah,” says Jenny, 35, from Charleston, South Carolina, a Harvard graduate and doctoral candidate at Hebrew University, who aside from her JLIC role, is a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School at Penn.
Jenny initiated a woman’s class two evenings each week on Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) the classic Jewish ethical work by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, 18th century Torah scholar and Kabbalist. “It’s been fabulous,” she says. “A group of women from different backgrounds, some from day school, some not, coming together to speak about the areas of Jewish and personal growth they want to work on. And we’re all supporting one another on this enlightening journey.”
Aside from his numerous chavrutot (study partners) with students, Rabbi Shulman teaches regular Talmud and parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah chapter) classes. “It affords me the time to talk to students and generate meaningful interaction with them,” he says. Jenny concurs. “The level of learning here is tremendous and the students are committed to it,” she says. “This past Simchat Torah, when the men were all going up to do their aliyot, the women were involved in a study group that began last year and has now become a tradition. More than 50 students signed up to take different parshiyot (chapters of the Torah) and learn them. Sitting in a circle, each woman spoke about the parsha she learned. Simchat Torah could often get kind of kitschy, especially on campuses, more of a party. Here, the learning of Torah was the simcha (the focus of celebration). We are looking forward to deepening that kind of tradition.”
Jonathan Eskreis-Winkler, 21, a junior at Penn, speaks for all the JLIC students when he says, “Having a JLIC couple living with us on our secular campus reminds us that we are not outside the world of Judaism. Through their presence and the community they help us build, we realize that any place can become a makom shel Torah (place for Torah learning).”
Following the original seeds planted by the Friedmans, the Shulmans are making certain that Penn remains fertile ground for Orthodox students.