A YOUNG RABBI AND HIS WIFE BRING THE SOUNDS OF JEWISH LIFE AND MUSIC – VIA THE GUITAR – TO THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, THROUGH THE OU’S JLIC PROGRAM
The sweet sounds of Jewish prayer and study, not to mention the guitar, are emanating from the University of Maryland’s College Park campus as Rabbi Eli Kohl and his wife, Naomi, begin their service this semester as Torah Educators in the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program.
JLIC in its seventh year, is found on 13 prestigious campuses nationwide, including the University of Maryland, where it is in its third year. Other new JLIC couples are in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, where the program debuted this fall.
The program, operating in coordination with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Student Life and the Torah Mitzion organization, 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 (kehilot) on campus by promoting positive growth and identity among Jewish students, therefore serving as one of the incubators of the future of Orthodoxy.
The program is open to all Jewish students, regardless of level of observance. It is based at Hillel, with the couple being part of the Hillel staff, as well as the OU staff.
Rabbi Kohl, a native of Brooklyn, received his BA in Sociology and his rabbinical ordination (semicha) from Yeshiva University in New York. He was a mentor in the YU mechinah (bridge) program, helping students make the transition to campus. “Some of my favorite times,” he says, “have been teaching kindergarten at Ramaz (an elite yeshiva in New York City) and leading Israel tours.”
Naomi Kohl, originally from New Jersey, has been involved in youth groups such as NCSY, the OU teen program, and summer camps for the past 11 years. She completed her BA in Psychology at Stern College of YU, received a MSW in Social Work from YU’s Wurzweiler School, and is one class away from completing her MA in Jewish Education from the Azrieli School at YU. Naomi declares that she is “excited to be on a college campus and not to have to take tests or write papers.” She likes to cook and enjoys inviting Maryland students to her home for Shabbat to sample her recipes.
According to Rabbi Ilan Haber, Jerusalem-based Director of the OU campus program, “The new JLIC couples are all off to really excellent starts on their campuses. I am very excited about their unique blend of qualities and talents, and what they bring to their respective campus communities. The feedback that I have received about the Kohls and their counterparts has been overwhelmingly positive.”
With the month-long period of Jewish holidays behind them, the Kohls are planning new programs and continuing those began last year. Thursday night is mishmar night, for yeshiva-style learning for men and women, with each of the Kohls leading a separate group. Rabbi Kohl gives classes, including a daily Talmud class early in the morning, a halacha class (on Jewish law), koffee and kabbalah on Jewish mysticism at the student union, and sessions on chassidic Judaism.
Mrs. Kohl offers a class on The Jewish Woman in one of the upper class dorms, and is beginning Smoothies & Shmooze in one of the freshman dorms. “Our Friday night onegs (Shabbat celebrations) have been a big hit, with over 70 students at each one so far,” she says.
Then there is the guitar. “I am a musician and we have had kumsitzes,” Rabbi Kohl says, referring to Jewish jam sessions. “I am starting a ‘Jewish Jam’ at the Hillel which will give musically inclined students an opportunity to play together. We live near campus and students feel comfortable popping by at all hours to shmooze with us.” The Kohls, who are in their first year of marriage, are planning a Date Night to encourage healthy relationships on a college campus, as well as the importance of dating Jewish. “We hope to follow up with a day-long program on love, dating and marriage in the spring,” Naomi says.
The Kohls are off to a fine start, but they face challenges, most notably the size of the Jewish population on campus; the large Jewish enrollment is one reason why JLIC came to College Park.
“There are approximately 400 Orthodox Jews out of a total of 6,000 Jews on campus. The challenge is getting to know the students – Orthodox and non-Orthodox – and finding time to learn, talk or just hang out with them – a daunting task. At this point, our goals are to get to know as many people as possible and to let the students know about our programs, to have them over for Shabbat meals, and to have them feel comfortable with us.”
Given their backgrounds and enthusiasm, there seems to be little question that Eli and Naomi Kohl will succeed in meeting these challenges and in making their students not only comfortable with them, but with one another in an atmosphere combining Jewish learning and fun.