Go West. Young Couple

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Aryeh & Sharona Kaplan

In recognition that the overwhelming majority of Modern Orthodox college students are being educated at secular universities, the Orthodox Union, in partnership with Hillel, administers the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), a program that helps Orthodox students navigate the college environment and balance their Jewish commitments with their desire to engage the secular world. Through the work of a young rabbi and his wife – known as Torah Educators — JLIC provides avenues for spiritual development and exploration to Jewish students from varied backgrounds and presents a positive, sophisticated and welcoming face of Orthodox Judaism on campus.

JLIC, now in its tenth year, is found on 15 major campuses, of which one is located west of the Mississippi. That campus is UCLA. Since September 2004, the Torah Educators have been Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, natives of Teaneck, N.J.

This is what their lives have been like since they arrived in Los Angeles.

It is amazing to consider how many of the milestones in our personal life are intimately intertwined with equally notable milestones of the Orthodox community at UCLA.

We arrived in Los Angeles from New York in 2004, happily settling into a spacious two-bedroom apartment in Westwood near campus, luxuriating in our SUV with an empty back seat and cavernous trunk, while marveling at the personal journey that lay ahead. We quickly made the Hillel at UCLA our home away from home, for JLIC is located there.

We hunkered down in the Beit Medrash, the Jewish library, studying the sheet of names that was the complete list of men and women participants in the JLIC community at UCLA that we inherited from Rabbi Uri and Julie Goldstein, who built the program there in its first three years and left us much to work with.

Now, almost six years later, we have moved ourselves, and our three Angelino children (ages, 5, 3 and 1), out of our very full apartment, are anticipating the arrival of our new eight-seater SUV which is scheduled to arrive only weeks before our fourth child, and look back astounded on all that has transpired. The Beit Medrash is alive with a steady buzz of learning and daily minyamim– prayer services; the new bookcases that were installed to accommodate the additional Jewish texts are full beyond capacity; and our Excel spreadsheet cataloging the members of the JLIC community boasts over 450 names.

JLIC programming is the pulse of an Orthodox student’s life on campus. With a wide range of study opportunities, including ones specifically tailored to law school students, Iranian students, men’s and women’s learning groups, advanced learning opportunities and classes for those just beginning – not to mention over 40 one-on-one study sessions each week – the calendar of learning is diverse and exciting. With personal classes for brides and grooms; support for newly married couples; classes for young professional alumni delivered at their workplaces and ongoing mentorship; counseling and shared celebrations, the relationships formed through JLIC are often deep and long lasting.

Operating out of the Hillel at UCLA creates a seamless portal for the full range of Jewish students – not only the Orthodox — to become absorbed into the JLIC community. With the ongoing support of the staff, the beautiful state of the art building, a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in the lobby and a kosher meat lunch program on the second floor, it is no wonder that many Orthodox students consider JLIC at UCLA their home away from home.

Destination UCLA:

The presence of JLIC at UCLA has made the campus the destination for Orthodox college students on the West Coast. Students from many area colleges affiliate with the program, some even choosing to live in Westwood (and commute to their own campuses!) to be situated within the strong Orthodox community at UCLA. Students who live at home, with their families, will often opt to spend Shabbat with a friend on campus, while holiday celebrations and social events draw students not only from UCLA but from Santa Monica College, California State University, Northridge and an array of other area institutions along with students from Yeshiva University and Stern College who are in Los Angeles for vacation.

Reflecting upon JLIC, David Bardo UCLA ’08, commented, “I don’t know how I would fit into life at UCLA without it,” as he appreciates that “My closest friends are students I have met through JLIC programs.” Ariel Huntley, a sophomore, echoes his sentiment, declaring, “Without JLIC, I would be unwilling to attend ULCA.”

The positive peer pressure, strong social network, regular religious opportunities and the abundance of supplemental study opportunities have created a unique energy that permeates our halls, transforms secular academic experiences and propels students through college in a meaningful, focused and inspired way.

Daniel Nomanim, UCLA ’09, testifies that “JLIC was the highlight of my UCLA experience. I found friends, intelligent conversation and a new outlook on religion and life that I will carry with me wherever I go.”

It’s not just students who are singing the praises of JLIC! We, the Torah Educators, feel the same way. JLIC offers the best possible professional combination for a rabbi. Participating in life cycle events, fielding constant questions about Jewish law and its applications, providing mentorship and celebrating Shabbat and holidays together, which are filled with opportunities to inspire on a communal level, are exciting parts of the pulpit rabbinate that are very present in the life of a JLIC Educator. Yet, the text-based learning, ongoing skill development, individual attention and curriculum building – all with an interested, intelligent and self-motivated audience – capitalize on the personal rebbe/talmid (teacher/student) relationship that is nurtured within JLIC.

The rabbi’s wife is never an appendage, but is an integral part of the program, equal to her husband, functioning as a role model for the young women who look to her for advice on everything from dating to establishing a kosher kitchen, to the laws of family purity, not to mention textual learning.

With our family now boasting a 2:1 ratio of those born at UCLA over those originating on the East Coast, we now consider ourselves to be firmly situated in Los Angeles. Annual trips to back to New Jersey each summer, where our children attend camp, provide quality time with our extended families and opportunities to reconnect with friends and mentors on the East Coast. While we once lived in walking distance to Yankee Stadium, we have gladly replaced that distinction with a weekly walk to shul past the famous Pauley Pavilion, with outings to Dodger Stadium.

The fire escapes outside our window are no longer, but there are roofless outdoor atriums instead. Snow is a novelty for our kids whenever they visit their grandparents. As for us? We look forward to being an avocado-eating, Dodger-supporting, beach-going Los Angeles family for many years to come!

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