Rabbi Rothstein, originally of Los Angeles, made aliyah to Israel with his family when he was 13 years old. His wife, Tali, a sabra (native-born Israeli), spent part of her childhood in New Jersey. The couple have a three-year old son, Yehonatan Yisrael and a ten-month old daughter, Elianna Reizel, both of whom have made fast friends with the UIUC students.
JLIC operates in coordination with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Torah Mitzion organization to support and tend to the spiritual needs of the students. Although targeted to the Orthodox, JLIC is open to all Jewish students, regardless of level of observance. It is based at Hillel, with the couple being part of both the Hillel and OU staffs.
The JLIC program features intensive study of Jewish texts, Sabbath and holiday observance, daily synagogue services, as well as mentoring and good companionship. It is dedicated to the enhancement of Orthodox communities on campus by promoting positive growth and identity among Jewish students, therefore serving as one of the incubators of the future of Orthodoxy.
JLIC, which is now in its eighth year, also includes fourteen other campuses: Boston University, Brandeis, University of Massachusetts/Amherst, Yale, NYU, Cornell, Princeton, Rutgers, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, University of Florida, University of Illinois, and UCLA. Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, and Boston University became JLIC campuses this year for the first time.
After holding an open house featuring homemade food, schmoozing, and a D’var Torah by Rabbi Rothstein to kick off the academic year, the couple turned their attention to holiday programming. Until Yom Kippur, there is an ongoing series, “New Beginnings,” that discusses the idea of teshuva, or repentance, and explores how that can be applied to practical life. Naftali and Tali hosted several students for Rosh Hashana meals at their home, a short walk from campus. In conjunction with Hillel, the couple also hosted a meal on the second night of Rosh Hashana, a sefardi-style dinner at which all the different simanim (signs) and brachot (blessings) unique to the High Holy Days are celebrated, explained and enjoyed by all. Rosh Hashana was September 29-30 this year.
“We often work closely with Hillel to plan programming for the Jewish students on campus,” said Tali. “Hillel and JLIC are a very tight family.” Tali mentioned the newly renovated Hillel building, a great resource for the students.
Rabbi Menachem Schrader, Founding Director of JLIC declared, “The Rothsteins have already shown themselves to be warm and inviting, having had an open house for summer students. They are warm and friendly, and perfect for Urbana-Champaign.”
Rabbi Rothstein, who has a B.A. in Education from Lifshitz Teacher’s College and teaching experience at Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion, both in Israel, declared, “I’m very excited to work with college-age students. From my work teaching in post-high school yeshivas in Israel, I discovered I truly like working with that age group. At that age, many teens are deciding in which direction to travel in life, and I want the chance to be able to answer those questions.”
Tali, who received her B.A. in English Literature and Linguistics from Hebrew University, shared the sentiment. “For many of the students, the college experience is the first time that they’re away from home and take upon themselves their own responsibilities. They’re at the age where many of them start to explore life and make choices of their own volition, rather than comply with ones that are forced upon them. It’s the first time a lot of students are away from their homes, and I like being able to provide them with a home away from home, and a shoulder for them to lean on if they need it. Tali has also completed a teachers’ training course in Jewish Marriage Education, and often counsels brides-to-be in aspects of Jewish family law and ritual purity.
Rabbi Ilan Haber, National Director of JLIC, declared, “Naftali Rothstein has experience teaching students in Israel and has seen many of them go on to study at secular universities, so he’s aware and familiar with many of the issues the returning students face. They’ll be able to bring the Torah of Eretz Yisrael in their work and engage the students in that way. We at JLIC are also excited about the creativity the couple displays in their work and the enthusiasm with which they approach their job. Tali is already preparing a creative writing experience that builds upon her skills and informal Jewish learning to encourage the students to explore their Judaism in unique ways.”
Besides the creative writing class mentioned by Rabbi Haber, the couple plan to hold weekly “lunch and learn” sessions featuring pizza and a Torah study session; a monthly women’s Rosh Chodesh (start of the new Jewish month) party including an activity, such as dancing; weekly Shabbat classes; and, in the works, a “study with a buddy” program highlighting one-on-one learning, which the couple hope will take place not just on campus but in coffee shops and in their home, as well. An upcoming event will feature a well-known speaker, Mrs. Aliza Bulow, who will deliver a talk on the Jewish perspective of sexuality. Finally, Rabbi Rothstein also holds an informal “Ask the Rabbi” session at one of the three Jewish fraternities on campus.
There are over 3,000 Jewish students on campus; of those 3,000, the Rothsteins estimate about 30-40 are Orthodox. “Even the students who are unaffiliated are still very interested in attending classes,” said Tali.
Naftali and Tali take over as JLIC educators after Rabbi Gabe and Shira Pransky, who served the campus last year.
“We’re grateful to the Pranskys, who were the JLIC couple who served the UCIC campus before us,” said the Rothsteins. “They did a lot to publicize JLIC and all it has to offer, but since there are always new students, like freshmen or people who have transferred in, there is always more to do in terms of getting the word out.”
Obviously, living in Illinois is quite different from living in Israel, but the couple have adjusted nicely. Rabbi Rothstein said, “Despite the small size of the Jewish community in Champaign, the warmth more than makes up for it.” Tali agreed, saying, “Yes, it’s a small community, but everyone is so friendly that our adjustment has been great. People pitched in to help us get settled, get furniture, and show us around the town. People have truly made us feel at home, and our son is picking up English very fast.”
The couple welcomes Jewish students from all backgrounds to participate in JLIC programs and classes, as well as any and all feedback. They can be reached at Naftali.firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com