This past summer the Department of Alumni Connections, directed by Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, set out to accomplish a seemingly impossible task: identifying and establishing contact information for thousands of OU program "graduates." Rabbi Felsenthal, or "Rabbi Dave," as he prefers to be called, has done an extraordinary job of tracking down students. Under his supervision and the department's thorough data collection process, Alumni Connections successfully identified over 1,700 students (1,000 freshmen) who are currently attending 402 different secular colleges. This year, he is hoping to increase the number of 12th graders contacted to 2,000.
The establishment of Alumni Connections has provided a "next step" for thousands of Jewish teenagers who participated in OU programs and synagogues. By seeking out these students, “the OU can ensure that they remain involved with Jewish organizations that emphasize the skills, knowledge and values necessary to form Jewish families and to emerge as the next generation of leaders in the Jewish community,” declared Rabbi Dave.
Alumni Connections doesn't only contact former NCSYers. Rabbi Dave also searches for students who were involved with OU synagogues, IPA (Institute for Public Affairs) and NCSY Birthright. NCSY provides as many as 8,000 alumni annually.
In order to reach students, Alumni Connections employs various data collection methods. Information is collected from students at regional Shabbatons, from NCSY reports, student surveys, OU synagogue rabbis, OU Israel, NCSY Taglit Birthright Israel Trips, and from students themselves via telephone and Internet.
JLIC is a major focus of the Alumni Connections effort. It is in operation at Yale, Princeton, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Brandeis, the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, New York University, Brooklyn College, Rutgers, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, the University of Illinois and UCLA in the United States and York University/University of Toronto, in Canada. In each program, a young rabbi and his wife provide the atmosphere of the yeshiva on the secular campus, offering classes, religious services, kosher food, and a firm connection to Jewish values and observance.
"Making the connection between OU program 'graduates' and JLIC representatives on college campuses is crucial in making sure that Jewish students stay involved," said Rabbi Felsenthal. On the campuses that do not have the JLIC program, Alumni Connections sends information to the directors of other Jewish campus organizations for their use.
Another important goal for the program is to expand the financial support received from alumni and supporters of alumni. To date, Alumni Connections has received donations from over 8,000 former participants.
JLIC couples are most appreciative of the names they receive from Alumni Connections. With this information, they can seek out new Jewish students and forge deeper connections with the ones they already know.
Rabbi Eli Kohl and Naomi Kohl, the JLIC representatives at the University of Maryland, have found the OU Department of Alumni Connections contact list quite helpful thus far.
"The OU has clearly taken this initiative very seriously," said Rabbi Kohl. "The OU has dedicated time, energy, and resources to ensure that students won't simply be dropped when they get to campus. Connecting NCSY alumni with JLIC makes their transition to college much smoother."
With the help of the Alumni Connections, the Kohl's have been able to reach out to Maryland students who have not yet become involved in Jewish programming on campus. Once they contact students, the Kohl’s invite them to Shabbat meals at their apartment and to weekly JLIC programs like Pizza and Parsha or the recently established Maryland Student Kollel.
Rabbi Yisrael Porath and Shoshana Porath, the JLIC couple at Rutgers University, are also grateful to have received alumni information from the OU, which assists them in their quest to seek out Jewish students and to provide programming and resources.
"The student contact information we received from the OU helped us to find and follow up with a lot of students," said Rabbi Porath. "But we aren't only trying to increase the numbers of students involved on a mass scale, we're trying to make one-on-one connections."
According to Rabbi Porath, meeting Jewish students among the "ocean of activities on campus" isn't an easy task, and getting people involved is not a quick process but requires many interactions and gradually building relationships. But with newly-created programs such as parsha study, challah baking, Shabbat services and meals, as well as the Life After College lecture (which featured Jewish Rutgers alumni discussing post-college decisions), they are meeting new students constantly.
In the years to come, Rabbi Dave is planning on sending them many more.