When competing with college exams, a multitude of classes and papers, and extracurricular activities including sports and internships, campus organizations need something pretty special to lure college students to a campus program. The Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) of the Orthodox Union had just that when it sponsored a six-part “Health and Halacha (Jewish law)” series at Rutgers University Hillel that drew over 100 students to its various classes and lectures.
JLIC, a joint initiative of the OU, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and the Torah Mitzion organization, places a young rabbi and his wife as Torah educators on campus to support and tend to the spiritual needs of the students. It can be found in New Jersey at Rutgers and Princeton. It is also operating at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Cornell, Boston University, Brandeis, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, New York University, Brooklyn College, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, the University of Illinois and UCLA in the United States. In Canada, it can be found in Toronto at York University/the University of Toronto.
Shoshana Porath, one half of the JLIC couple on Rutgers University’s campus, supervised the event. “JLIC really wanted something that would make a splash, and we know that matters involving both health and halacha are a very topical subject in today’s times of modern medicine,” she declared. “A student here heard about a genetic screening program at NYU and wanted to bring it to Rutgers. From there, a whole series on health matters developed.”
The six events of the series were:
• A lecture on genetic screening by JLIC representative (and Shoshana’s other half) Rabbi Yisroel Porath, who spoke about the halachic implications; and a genetics counselor from NYU, who spoke about 12 common Jewish genetic diseases;
• A free genetic screening registration sponsored by the NYU Langone Medical Center, coordinated by Malka Sasson, Study Coordinator of the Human genetic Program at the NYU School of Medicine;
• A lecture, “Relationships: United or Untied? It Depends On Where You Put The ‘I’: Secrets to Healthy Interactions,” by Rabbi Dr. John Krug, dean of The Frisch School in Paramus;
• “Women’s Health and Halacha,” a discussion on women’s health matters and their implications for Jewish law, led by two distinguished women who are experts in their fields: Dr. Talia Rosenzweig, an Orthodox Jewish OB-GYN who discussed the medical aspects of different issues in women’s health; and Mrs. Atara Eis, a yoetzet halacha (female adviser on Jewish law) who discussed the Jewish law aspects of women’s health issues and presented the Torah perspective on sexuality;
• A Thursday night mishmar (learning) presentation by a representative of the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS), by Esther Nussbaum, Executive Coordinator of HODS, and
• A session led by Fran Ackerman, a New Jersey clinical social worker, on various issues in mental health, such as the signs of depression, recognizing the signs in a friend, and how to approach helping a friend in trouble.
Mrs. Porath said the crowd of over 100 students was one of the largest – and most diverse – turnouts for a JLIC-run program. “We're glad that we were able to provide such relevant information at a crucial stage, and are blessed with a great Hillel, whose support and publicity of the program led to the large and diverse student participation. The series fit right in with Hillel’s reputation for providing opportunities for students to expand their knowledge and encounter Judaism in meaningful ways that are relevant to them.”
The program was made possible through a JLIC programming grant specifically requested by the Poraths.
Along with Mrs. Porath, two Rutgers juniors, Sarah Baer of Teaneck and Jenny Greenblum of Fairlawn, coordinated the whole series of events. This included not only brainstorming for ideas, but also advertising and marketing for the programs, setting up at each event, cleaning up, and serving food. “Having such capable student leadership was key to having the sessions run so smoothly,” Mrs. Porath said.
Ms. Baer stated, "There was a real need on campus for events covering topics like those in the health and halacha series which hit really close to home, topics that affect college students but which are often overlooked in favor of rote halacha. There are so many questions which cross the line between personal health issues and Jewish law issues, and it was great to finally have events which addressed these very current topics.”
Joshua Reback of Westampton, NJ, a senior who attended some of the presentations, stated, “The programs were unquestionably vital. Any Orthodox program, whether a shiur (class) or a seminar, that can remind people about how tangible halacha actually is, is important these days.”
The speakers and seminar presenters all made note of the eager and intelligent audience.
Rabbi Krug, who spoke about various issues involved in building healthy relationships, stated, “The unbridled enthusiasm and immense interest with which the students responded to the evening’s seminar, many of whom have been in touch with me following the presentation, highlight the need for ongoing outreach programs on the college campuses. This need will magnify in the current economic environment with the ever-growing population attending state schools and universities outside the traditional major metropolitan areas. Kudos to the OU for such a wonderful initiative!”
Esther Nussbaum of HODS echoed his favorable impression of the students and their enthusiasm for the program. “I found the students extremely attentive and interested, and they asked quite a number of very astute questions,” she commented. “After my presentation, the students stayed for another full hour to continue the discussion.”
Ms. Nussbaum spoke about the halachic and medical aspects of organ donation; why organ donation is controversial in the rabbinic world; the shortage of organs for donation in the United States and Israel; and the legal aspects of selling organs. She also spoke about registering for organ donation cards; many students expressed interest in signing up to register as card-carrying members of the Halachic Organ Donation Society.
Of the women’s health discussion, many students found a forum to allow them to ask personal questions that they might have otherwise kept to themselves. Student Dana Erdfarb, of Teaneck, who attended the session, declared, “Dr. Rosenzweig and Mrs. Eis were both clearly knowledgeable and had the women in the audience feeling comfortable. We all got answers to questions we’ve all really wanted to ask, and it was really nice to have a forum to discuss female issues that are generally regarded as taboo.”
Dr. Rosenzweig, the OB-GYN, commented, “It's very important for young women to get a better understanding of both the physical and spiritual nature of their bodies. I believe this forum allowed these women the opportunity, in a non-judgmental setting, to learn about themselves, and how religion and medicine relate to the Jewish woman.”
The success of the series is a lasting phenomenon; comments Mrs. Porath, “The presentations and discussions have since fueled a lot of follow-up conversation for my husband and I with the students. It has definitely helped pique interest in and appreciation of the Jewish perspective on relevant issues for many among the campus.”