On June 14-15, 2011, twelve Orthodox Jewish college students who are active participants in JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) attended the OU’s IPA (Institute for Public Affairs) annual mission to Washington DC. As one of those participants, I have chosen to write about the experience from a student’s perspective.
I am currently enrolled as a junior at Yale University, which boasts one of the strongest college campus Jewish communities in the world. During my past year as Co-President of Yale’s Orthodox community (formally known as Young Israel House at Yale), I have experienced both the joys and the troubles that define synagogues and Orthodox communities across America. Perhaps the most uplifting yet challenging aspect of Yale’s Jewish community is its incredible blending of denominations. Yale’s Hillel leadership has gone out of its way to honor the frummest (most observant) common denominator. At Shabbat dinner, the second-most-widely and diversely attended kosher meal at Yale, kiddush is sung in unison, and the zimmun is led by a male. However, the broader Jewish community cannot cater to all observant needs. On occasion, the priorities of the Orthodox community are so unique that they require specially tailored resources. It is at this point where OU comes into play.
Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), supported by OU, is a program that appoints full-time, professional Jewish educators to strengthen and lead existing college Orthodox communities. Some of the ways, among many, in which Yale’s JLIC couple provides for the otherwise neglected needs of Orthodox students include: inviting students for late Yom Tov dinners, coordinating oversight of the eruv, answering sha’elahs, preparing multi-level shiurim, and bringing international Torah scholars to speak on a more-than-regular basis. Yale’s JLIC educators, Rabbi Jason and Meira Rappoport, have been personal role models; their example inspired me to follow in their footsteps, taking on additional leadership roles within our community.
Because of my involvement with JLIC, I found myself in a suit and tie eating delicious, kosher meals (with red meat!) last week in Washington DC. As part of The IPA Mission, I was able to join with eleven other JLIC student delegates who had the opportunity to meet with Obama administration officials, senators, and congressmen, as well as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. More importantly, we gained an insider’s view into what OU really does.
Contrary to popular perception, the Orthodox Union is not just a hashgacha agency. Through the work of the IPA, the OU and the entire North American Orthodox Jewish community it serves have become leaders and spokespersons for a moral and Jewish-friendly America. When I saw U.S. senators hug OU president Dr. Simcha Katz, I felt doubly proud, both as the citizen of a great country and as an Orthodox Jew. This mission was a personal revelation; I learned that American Orthodoxy deeply values its relationship with society…. and I also recognized that the respect is mutual.
The take-home lesson that I brought back to Yale was simply this: our communities are highly functional thanks to behind-the-scenes work of community leaders who reach out to the administration. Too often, we are caught up in the uniqueness of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and this can lead to feelings of isolation, a belief that no one outside of our own community could possibly sympathize with our practices.
On the contrary, spending time in Washington has left me with the deepest impression: our government values Orthodoxy; all we need to do is speak up and participate in the great dialogue of democracy that forms the cornerstone of our nation’s highest ideals. Similarly, university administrators and leaders of the broader Jewish communities on campus look up to their Orthodox student contingent. It is, therefore, imperative that we not only continue to showcase our college spirit but also raise high our banner of Torah and Mitzvos.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.