Against Anti-Israel Sentiment, NYU Students Thrive with JLIC

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06 May 2014
Rabbi Gideon Black leading a session at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.
Rabbi Gideon Black leading a session at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

When a pro-Palestinian student group at New York University slid anti-Israel notices under dorm room doors in two of New York University’s largest dorms, students turned to the rabbi of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) for support.

“Most students would have simply been inconvenienced by this stunt, but for many Jewish students it was quite uncomfortable. It created a feeling of being singled out, victimized and targeted in your own living quarters,” explained Rabbi Gideon Black who said he was contacted by students about the flyers.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) slid 2,000 flyers in the Palladium and Lafayette dorms. Palladium has a heavy concentration of Jewish students. The flyers were mock eviction notices similar to the ones that the Israeli Defense Forces issue to the families of Palestinian terrorists. The story was first reported by The Times of Israel and then picked up by major news outlets. The tactic, called dorm storming, has been used by SJP in Rutgers in October 2013 and led to the group’s temporary suspension from Northwest University in February. SJP promotes the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli goods and is alleged to bully pro-Israel activists on college campuses.

Rabbi Black called it “a cheap and ineffective shot at disturbing what is an otherwise a very harmonious community for Jewish and Muslim students.”

Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus is an Orthodox Union program launched in 2000 by Rabbi Menachem Schrader. The program places an Orthodox couple on staff inside a university and is funded by the Orthodox Union, the national Hillel organization and private donors. On campuses, the couples act as role models and support systems for Jewish students in an otherwise secular college campus. Currently, there are 20 JLIC couples on campuses across the United States and Canada.

“My role is to look after, empower, inspire, educate and tend to the needs of Jewish students on campus, in particular those who have graduated from Orthodox day schools,” explained Rabbi Black who lives next door to Weinstein, a popular NYU freshman dorm, together with his wife Aliza and two sons, Judah and Natan. “Our goal is to give them the opportunities for their four years of college to be growth-oriented and filled with passionate Judaism.”

Rabbi Black studied at the London School of Economics, holds a law degree from University College London and an MA in Jewish Philosophy and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Aliza, a graduate of Stern College, is a physician assistant. The Blacks, alongside NYU’s female educators Rivky Stern and Rachel Waldman, study one-on-one with students, give lectures throughout the week, lead prayers and host Shabbat meals in their apartment among various other activities. The latest addition to NYU JLIC’s programming is a weekly Monday night Women’s Beit Midrash and a book club for seniors that meets weekly at the Black’s apartment.

“I think the special role that JLIC has is it enables the development of a full community that includes Orthodox rabbinic staff,” stated NYU senior Jacob Wilner. “It creates a support system that closely resembles a fully functioning community outside of the university life.”

NYU’s JLIC enjoys an especially warm relationship with the NYU Hillel, the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Executive Director of the Bronfman Center, previously spent seven years as NYU’s JLIC rabbi.

“JLIC is the foundation of my work as the director of the Bronfman Center,” he said. “The mission in the Bronfman center is to be a home for Jewish students and to be a Jewish center for the whole university. Essentially, we’re trying to educate Jewish students in being deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, but being actively responsible for the Jewish people and the world.”

Writing in New York’s The Jewish Week, Rabbi Sarna decried SJP’s tactic in an article entitled “A Plea for Dialogue, Not More Stunts.”

“Campuses will always be a battleground between political adversaries in a zero-sum game,” he wrote.  “But for those who want to see a gentler century than the one just past, isn’t it time to train the leaders who offer us a different channel to which we may turn?”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.