The OU Provides Orthodox Jews a Haven on Campus

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College Campus
06 May 2005

There’s something unusual going on at the Brooklyn College campus lately. Each day, a young rabbi sporting a beard and ready smile walks across the campus eliciting a flurry of enthusiastic waves, nods, and requests to meet him later. It wasn’t always like this.

Every year, tens of thousands of young men and women move out of their homes and into an academic microcosm of society. During their stay, they gather foreign philosophy, knowledge, and ideas that will influence them for the rest of their lives. A scary thought, considering the increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews currently attending college campuses throughout the country – many who feel socially isolated and spiritually compromised in an atmosphere where society’s morality plunge is so evident.

Recognizing this dilemma, the OU teamed up with Hillel and Torah MiTzion. To launch the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, JLIC, an innovative program that proves beyond a doubt that you can go home again – on campus.

“The JLIC’s success rides on the students feeling comfortable speaking to a rabbi.”

Operating at nine of America’s top Academic Universities, the program places a young rabbi and his wife on campus who provide the Orthodox students with a warm and welcoming venue, a place where they can feel at ease – and inspired. The couple offers them regular Torah classes, daily minyanim, lively Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations, as well as personal counseling – all within a social setting suitable for interaction with their peers. Making a perceptible difference for hundreds of Orthodox college students around the country, the JLIC couples continue to furnish the vital religious support and environment previously lacking on campus.

Back to that friendly rabbi at Brooklyn College. Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov and his wife, Nalini, heard about the position while studying in Israel and were eager to make a difference for the students. “I actually attended Brooklyn College.,” says Rabbi Ibragimov. “I remember feeling lost on campus. There were no people to turn to.” Not one to stand idly by, he designed and distributed a parsha sheet called Roots/Etz Chaim, conducted popular shiurim, and organized Chanukah chagigahs, paving the way for JLIC’s presence at the campus, and the challenge ahead of him.

Enjoying a festive Purim chagiga with JLIC

The Ibragimovs arrived at Brooklyn College’s Hillel House in 2003 and in just three years established a solid Orthodox contingent there. “If they want Torah, we’re the place to get it,” says Nalini Ibragimov. “The image has changed at Hillel. Orthodox students feel they can come in here.” She says the advent of a kosher fleishig kitchen also helped. The new Bais Midrash affords the students a more appropriate place to daven and learn. (They have a daily mincha minyan and are currently establishing a Shacharit minyan.) “They no longer have to find a private corner in the hallway or by the cafeteria or run home during their hour or two break from classes,” says Mrs. Ibragimov. “They know they have a place here.”

JLIC’s Daily Impact

According to Rabbi Ibragimov, the JLIC’s success rides on the students feeling comfortable speaking to a rabbi. “It takes developing relationships with them, making myself available, spending time talking,” he says. “The students who graduated, on whom I didn’t think I impacted on any level, call me up now and ask me to learn with them. Sometimes you don’t see it, but it had an effect.”

As he continues to show his active concern for the personal growth of each student, the effects have become more noticeable, sometimes poignantly so. “My father passed away four years ago, and Rabbi Reuven has been a real father figure to me,” says Elan Strobel, 19, a business major. “I’m able to express my feelings to the fullest with him. He has been a very big part of keeping me spiritually strong at college.” Elan says he speaks to Rabbi Ibragimov on a daily basis and they recently set up a weekly chavrusa. “As much as he’s involved in JLIC and helping others, he’s also growing himself,” says Elan. “He’s still learning and attending shiurim and better able to deal with situations and problems through his knowledge of Torah. I look to him as my rabbi and my friend.”

Sarah Stadler, 21, a music major in her fourth semester came to Brooklyn College on the heels of a year of intensive learning at Michlelet Esther. She admits that it’s a vulnerable time. “Coming back from Israel, one has to create a kind of protective bubble. I needed to reconnect, to take what I’ve learned in seminary and somehow hold onto it. We’re surrounded by a secular environment, taking the worst classes. If I didn’t have the Rabbi and Rebbetzin and the shiurim, I think I’d have trouble grappling with who I am.”

B’chavrusa with Rabbi Ibragimov

As a New York City campus, Brooklyn College contains the melting pot within the melting pot, drawing Jews from diverse backgrounds including Russian, Syrian, Egyptian, haredi, modern, and unaffiliated.

“We were never really religious,” says Michael Masri, 19, born of Egyptian and Greek ancestry. “I started keeping kosher in high school. Once I stopped going to yeshiva and started college, I wasn’t around a constant Jewish environment anymore. The fact that I can go to the JLIC at Hillel House and the rabbi and his wife are always there, it keeps me grounded and connected.” He has a weekly chavrusa with Rabbi Ibragimov, attends his classes, and has come to every Shabbat the JLIC hosted. “They definitely help keep me religious. It gives purpose to it.”

Working at a commuter school presents the added challenge of creating a cohesive sense of community for the Orthodox and not-yet-observant Jewish students, who would ordinarily come to classes and go home. Much depends on getting the word out.

“Students know there’s a “cool” Orthodox rabbi at the Hillel House and are more willing to come,” says Mrs. Ibragimov. Both the rabbi and rebbetzin make themselves readily available for advice, direction, or a stimulating shmooze – even in the middle of a class. “A few weeks ago, a student came running into my office to tell me that his professor just announced that anyone who believes in G-d is a fool. He wanted to know how he should respond. We discussed the best way to approach the teacher. He left relieved. Students know they can come here.”

Rabbi Ibragimov found that by applying both his understanding of the student’s sensibilities and his knack for ingenuity, he could provide the kind of innovative programming guaranteed to hit the spiritual spot for these young Jewish adults. He created a forum for discussion groups addressing topics that interest today’s youth, such as war, homosexuality, and male-female relationships – all based on Torah texts. He also introduced the “Jew Don’t Know Jack” classes, for students who think they know all there is to know about Judaism. He composes and posts eye-catching flyers about the classes and waits for the response. “I’m always surprised by what I learn,” says Renata Kliger, 19, a psychology major and president of the Russian club. “He’ll take something that everyone’s reading and says, ‘Okay, let’s look at the Jewish message. Let’s see where Torah stands on it.’ It was so strange; here was a rabbi giving classes on Chumash with Rashi, who gives us in depth answers to questions. And this is the same person who could understand what I’m talking about!”

The new Beit Midrash affords the students a more appropriate place to daven and learn. “They no longer have to find a private corner in the hallway or by the cafeteria or run home during their hour or two break from classes. They know they have a place here.”

The Beauty of Judaism – Live and in Person

The Ibragimov’s constant presence on campus proves the adage that example serves as the most powerful teacher. “They are a living model of Judaism,” says Renata Kliger. “A guy told me ‘You know what I want? A house like Rabbi Reuven’s.’ It’s the way they act, their midos. This is the first time I saw a family and said, ‘This is what I want to have.’ That’s huge.” And the impression doesn’t diminish once a student graduates. “My husband told me that a student who graduated came to our home for Sukkos in need of advice,” says Mrs. Ibragimov. “He told him that men don’t know how to treat women today. He said, ‘That’s one thing I really learned from you. I want to treat my wife the way you treat your wife.’ “

The growing respect for the Ibragimov’s insight and warmth has prompted a constant stream of Brooklyn College guests and visitors into the couple’s home on Shabbat, to join in holy camaraderie and sometimes for direly needed TLC. “I had been dating someone seriously and it suddenly fell apart,” says Renata. “The week we broke up, I asked the rabbi what he and his wife were doing for Shabbat. He responded, ‘you’re coming, right?’ I came to their house and didn’t say a word the entire Shabbat. I basically came up for meals. And no one mentioned anything. It was ‘Let her do what she needs to do.’ The following week, I couldn’t eat a single thing. I couldn’t go to class. I came into the rabbi’s office and told him I haven’t been able to eat anything. He asked, “Did you have ice cream?’ It was the best relationship advice I ever had – so practical so comforting.. I thought, ‘Here is a person who understands the power of ice cream.’ He never lectured. He listened, and bottom line, he understood.”

As an advisor for various clubs at Hillel, Rabbi Ibragimov tries to drum up interest among different sectors of Jewish students across the campus. “At the beginning of every semester, I make a point to visit the fraternities and sororities to introduce myself,” he says. “There are a lot of Jews who join these clubs. I make sure to make myself available to them.” Apparently his efforts are bearing fruit. Already the rabbi for the AEPi (Jewish fraternity), the boys made him an honorary member. This winter, 12 members plan to attend an Ohr Sameach summer program in Israel where they will learn for six hours every day. Rabbi Ibragimov plans to meet them there (He will be leading the summer Birthright program).

Building a Sukkah 101 at Brooklyn College.

“Half of these boys went to yeshiva and subsequently disconnected themselves from Torah. The other half doesn’t have any background,” reports Mrs. Ibragimov. “They are really such neshamas! We developed a relationship with two of these boys and they went to Ohr Sameach to learn last summer. They came back and inspired their friends to go learn.” “For some, it’s reconnecting to their roots, for others, it’s their very first experience.” The Ibragimovs have also hosted several successful AEPi Shabbatons in their home.

Encouraged by the solid inroads they’ve made, with 40 students attending all-night learning sessions this past Shavuot, and 85 students participating in a recent Friday night Shabbat dinner on campus, this dedicated JLIC couple continues to create their hoped for sense of a community at Brooklyn College, offering the Jewish students a place to connect to the richness of their heritage, to new friends, and to the Jewish potential within them. “Perhaps their most important contribution has been that students know there is someone who cares about them in a personal way,” says Rabbi Menachem Schrader, Founding Director of the JLIC program. “Seeing students greet their rabbi with such a cheerful disposition, whether or not they are wearing kippot or dresses, and the meaningful exchanges that take place even as they pass each other, says a lot.”

Elan Strobel speaks for many of his fellow Jewish students affected by the JLIC program when he says, “Incorporating the learning and keeping my mind thinking Torah adds to my whole day. If I didn’t have this, I would just be hanging around in the big social scene at the cafeteria. JLIC is my home away from home.”

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