MEET RABBI AVISHAI AND NOMI MAGENCE: NEW JLIC COUPLE AT JOHNS HOPKINS
These days, it’s not unusual to find a young Orthodox rabbi sporting a kippah and smile strolling across the Johns Hopkins campus, eliciting a flurry of enthusiastic hellos, waves and requests to meet him later. Rabbi Avishai Magence, 29, the new JLIC (Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) rabbi loves his new job and it shows.
Up until recently, secular campus life for the observant student was a far from easy one to navigate. Yet 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.
This fall, Rabbi Magence, and his wife, Nomi, 29, enthusiastically joined the JLIC staff, succeeding Rabbi Binyamin and Miriam Marwick, who during their three-year stay established a vibrant Orthodox resource at the Johns Hopkins campus. The Magences plan to continue the dynamic programming initiated by their predecessors while generating some of their own.
“JLIC combines everything I wished for in a post-yeshiva position,” says Rabbi Magence, born and raised in Israel (his American-born parents made aliya in 1973). He welcomes the opportunities to employ his Torah knowledge, gleaned from a decade of study, by learning one-on-one with students, responding to the halachic (Jewish law) questions that come up on campus, and serving as a spiritual guide for the Orthodox student community.
Johns Hopkins boasts 500 Jewish undergraduates and 500 graduate students coming from a wide range of backgrounds, according to Hillel. The Magences aren’t daunted by the diversity. “Some of the students have learned in yeshiva and are capable of studying Hebrew texts, others have less of a background and the rest are in between,” says Rabbi Magence. “Everyone is extremely intelligent here and the shiurim (Torah classes), such as the weekly ‘Pizza and Parsha’ class, definitely get a good discussion going.”
Making sure to address the Orthodox students’ social needs, Rabbi Magence plans to initiate a Saturday night get-together (suggested by a student) as an alternative to the campus social scene. “While the other students are out partying, the observant students don’t have anywhere to go,” he says. “They also feel the need to chill out and relax after a hard week.” Nomi concurs. “The campus atmosphere makes it very easy to just be involved in their studies or to just go with the flow, which is unfortunate,” she says. “They need something that’s enjoyable for them to do and feel a meaningful connection to.”
According to Rabbi Magence, campus life can pose numerous challenges for Orthodox students, be it social, spiritual or educational. Consequently, they are taking advantage of his Torah knowledge. “Students ask me questions such as whether they could eat food cooked by a Jew or non-Jew on Shabbat, or the permissibility of eating at the same table in the cafeteria where non-kosher food is being consumed, or receiving medical care from a non-Jewish doctor on Shabbat,” he says. “Some questions have to do with yichud (being alone with a person of the opposite gender in a closed room).” Evidently, they find comfort in knowing they have someone wise to turn to with the tricky predicaments they face on a daily basis.
In an effort to make his helpful presence known, Rabbi Magence opened up a Facebook account. “That’s where it’s all happening,” he says. “It’s the best way to communicate with young people today.” He has thus far started two blogs. On one he shares the various halachic issues that have come up on campus and the way they were dealt with; the other, called “Matters of Consequence covers more “worldly issues.”
“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 personal 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.”
“It’s so essential for students, especially in a secular university, to be able to have a home away from home,” says Nomi, born in New Jersey, raised in Israel, and mother of Uriel (6), Avital, (4), and Yael (2). “We are their Orthodox family on campus; they know they can come to us with anything they need, whether just to talk or to learn together.” She plans to employ her background in psychology, nutrition, and aerobics to give female students a richer appreciation of what it means to be a Jewish woman. Her drawing board features Rosh Chodesh activities, exercise classes, Jewish cooking and challah baking. “We hope to give them the tools to encourage their spiritual growth on campus and for their future.”
Moshe Eisenberg, of Johns Hopkins’ 2010 graduating class, speaks for all those touched by JLIC when he says, “While secular college campuses can be a desert of Jewish learning and connection, JLIC is an oasis, a strong tree where students can find shade and return to their roots."
Following the original seeds planted by the Marwicks, the Magences are making certain that Johns Hopkins remains fertile ground for Orthodox students.