What Brandeis Students Have to Say About OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus

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An overwhelming majority of Orthodox college students attend secular universities around the country, yet the campus environment can pose serious challenges to these young men and women’s observance and commitment. To address this pressing dilemma, the OU teamed up with Hillel and Torah Mitzion and launched the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, JLIC.

Currently operating at nine of America’s top academic universities, the program places a young rabbi and his wife on campus to 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 furnish the vital religious support and environment previously lacking on campus. These JLIC mentors also inspire non-affiliated and nominally affiliated Jewish students seeking a connection to their spiritual and religious roots.

Brandeis University in Boston comprises the largest observant student population in the United States. In order to measure the success of the JLIC’s presence at Brandeis, the OU asked some of the student participants to share their personal impressions of the program – its impact on their lives and on the campus Jewish community. The following essays feature the voices of four Brandeis students presently benefiting from JLIC.

Emily Loubaton, senior

I came to Brandeis with open eyes and ears, ready for my college experience.

After attending the Yeshivah of Flatbush my whole life, I spent a year in Israel, studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum. I was somewhat worried about the reputation of secular college for observant Jews that it makes people less frum, more jaded, and sends people off the derech. I went in expecting an uphill battle religiously. Looking back almost three years later, I realize how lucky I was because of JLIC.

Contrary to popular opinion, I would like to believe that it is easy to be an observant Jew at Brandeis. Are there obstacles on any college campus? Of course. Are there “ugly” aspects of secular college? No doubt. But having resources like Rabbi Aaron and Adena Frazer on campus definitely contribute to encouraging living an active Jewish life on campus. It’s comforting to know that there is always somebody there to ask any question you’d like. There is always someone making sure that Jewish learning on campus is thriving.

The Frazers have regular shiurim (classes) every day of the week, including Shabbat, when Rabbi Frazer is up giving shiur until 11:30 pm on Rav Kook – in Hebrew! When they are not giving shiurim, the Frazers are inevitably having chavrutot (one-on-one study) in the Beit Midrash (house of study), in their office, in the cafeteria, or any other convenient location on campus. Any other free time they have is spent talking informally with students and getting to know them individually. The Frazers are always asking for feedback and they have gone out of their way to acquaint themselves with each and every student.

I have had the pleasure of really getting to know both Rabbi and Adena Frazer during my time at Brandeis. Every week Adena and I have a chavruta in Masechet Makkot, and though there is the necessary schmoozing, we have a fun time learning together. I also attend Adena’s women’s Gemara shiur and I am amazed each week by the amount of time and preparation put into the shiur. Adena does everything she can to make sure that we understand the concepts in the Gemara – a difficult task for a shiur open to all levels. She succeeds, and each Wednesday it proves to be an hour and a half well spent.

Although I have not attended the rabbi’s shiurim, I have gotten to know Rabbi Frazer through my work as president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization (BOO).

During my term, I got to see how much passion Rabbi Frazer has for the community and how much he cares about our well-being. In addition to serving as the Orthodox community’s halachic advisor, he continually tries to think of innovative ways to engage students Jewishly.

One of the most important things the Frazers do is recognize the diversity of Jewish practice on this campus. They get to the hearts of the students, from the shiur on the recent Tsunami (addressing the idea of tragedy in Judaism) to making sure there’s hot apple cider constantly brewing in the Beit Midrash on cold winter days.

Catering to such a large range of religious observance and affiliation can be tremendously difficult, yet the Frazers have made connections with students of all walks of Jewish life, whether though chavrutot with a student new to Judaism, or through a shiur specifically targeted towards the Reform students on campus. Many Brandeis students have become affiliated with Judaism and JLIC has actively helped them on their religious journeys. Knowing friends in this situation, I have heard them say how thankful they are to have the Frazers and they don’t believe that they would have been remotely affiliated had it not been for them.

At Brandeis, I have found a place where I can maintain a very strong Jewish observance. I would not say it’s hard to be Jewish here. I have had a very positive Jewish experience and I have only grown religiously. It is also a place where one can explore Judaism, regardless of background. The Frazers have solidified this by forming relationships with all kinds of students and by showing their ability to relate to each as an individual. Thanks to JLIC, Brandeis has strong resources for Jewish learning and growth. We are lucky to have a vibrant and dynamic student community and even luckier to have such wonderful leaders.

It is very hard to sum up all the work that the JLIC at Brandeis has accomplished in the relatively short amount of time that the Frazers have been here. It is, however, easy to say that their work has been invaluable to this community.

Preston Neal, sophomore

I grew up in the southern part of Austin, Texas, a 20-minute car-ride away from the nearest synagogue. The only Orthodox synagogue in the city was a Chabad House located at the University of Texas. Although my mother is Jewish and my father is not, they chose to raise my sister and me as Jews. For some undefined reason, I knew that my Jewish identity was important yet I did not consider it to be of prime importance in my life. Growing up in an almost entirely non-Jewish environment, occasionally frequenting my Reform Temple attending public high school, and being in a serious relationship with a girl who was not Jewish, I was fairly detached from the “Jewish world.” It wasn’t until after my sophomore year of high school, while attending a non-denominational Judaic Studies camp with other teenagers in Pennsylvania, that I began to notice that there was something significant lacking in my life.

I experienced a paradigm shift during the summer following my sophomore year of high school, when I attended the Judaic studies camp run by the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, called Kallah. There I experienced praying three times a day; I was among about 300 other Jewish teens who were there because they wanted to learn more about their Judaism. There were a few Orthodox individuals, many from Conservative backgrounds, and some with secular backgrounds, like myself. This identification with a spiritually committed Jewish community of my peers helped to stir my own commitment to Judaism, its ideals, and its people. One of the rabbis there had a huge impact on my religious growth, especially in realizing how every action I do, even a seemingly insignificant one, can have enormous consequences, for good or for bad. I was tremendously affected by the idea – that we lived at Kallah – that Judaism provided an opportunity to live a spiritual life every moment of every day via the performance of mitzvot. In this vein, I decided to wear a yarmulke as a reminder to myself that I was always in God’s presence; it also served as an outward indication of my pride in my Jewish identity – especially in a public high school in Austin, where I was the only Jewish person wearing a yarmulke. Even though I experienced significant amount of anti-Semitism – mostly out of ignorance – I did not stop wearing it, and I knew that if I tried to live my life with the awareness of God’s presence, then ultimately these anti-Semitic incidents could not affect that.

After coming home from this near-paradise experience in beautiful Starlight, PA (near the Catskills), I wanted to keep the flame going. Clearly, I was fighting an uphill battle. No one at my school or in the area I lived in had an interest in living even a minimally observant religious life. I started attending my Reform Temple every Shabbat. It wasn’t like Kallah, but it was nice to be part of a community that wanted to create a spiritual connection to God and Shabbat, even if they weren’t Shomrei Shabbat. (I was the only person my age attending services there.) During that time, it was just my Mom and I living at home and, although she wasn’t ready to transform our kitchen into a kosher kitchen yet, she was extremely supportive of my decision to become more observant. Over time, she began to come to services with me and that helped me feel supported at home to grow in my commitment to Judaism.

While I went to Shabbat services on a weekly basis, I didn’t become “Shomer Shabbat” until I came to Brandeis. It was a gradual process, and understandably so. If I had tried to completely alter my life over night, I highly doubt that I would have had such a positive orientation towards becoming more religious. Whereas before, I had compartmentalized my Jewish identity and my “everyday” identity, now I started to wear a yarmulke on a daily basis, and I felt a passionate commitment to Judaism like never before. I carried this inspiration with me into college.

While I was really excited to come to Brandeis and to become part of a large Jewish community – a place where I would feel more accepted than I often did in Austin – I was not sure with which denomination I would identify myself. I had grown up Reform, but had become disenchanted with the movement because of what seemed to me to be a lack of serious commitment to the practice of Judaism in daily life. For most of my friends and acquaintances who were Reform, Judaism was more of a “culture” than a way of life. I wanted to be part of a more dedicated community that would challenge me to grow in my Jewish identity and level of commitment. I figured I could best find that in the Orthodox community, which at Brandeis has (in just the last decade) grown enormously.

I had been fairly intimidated by outwardly religious Jews and I had often acted self-conscious around them, so, initially, when I met Rabbi Aharon Frazer and his wife, Adena, I did not really feel very comfortable. But that changed. I remember at one of the first few community-wide Shabbat meals, talking with Adena, and how impressed I was at her worldliness – a quality I didn’t expect in a strictly Orthodox Jewish woman. It upset me, though, that the shiurim that she teaches are exclusively for women. I would like to be able to learn about some of the Jewish laws relating to women (e.g., hair-covering, wearing skirts, why women cannot be part of a minyan, etc.). If nothing more, it would be nice to hear what the reasoning is for having female-only shiurim.

Most of my interactions with the Frazers have been mainly though Rabbi Frazer – except of course when their baby, Eliana, decides to come grab my “Shabbat fedora” and walk around with it on her head. The same worldly impression that I had of Adena carried over to my conversations with her husband. For a while I was still self-conscious about what I should say or do around him, but much to my surprise, he seemed pretty down to earth and often he often made very clever and funny jokes – even in the context of what might otherwise be considered “dry” halacha – during our meetings with each other, which made it a great deal easier for me to relate to him.

I developed a sincere admiration for his wisdom and attitude towards Judaism. I recall on one Shabbat that Rabbi Frazer gave a courageous d’var Torah before Ma’ariv about a Jewish student at Brandeis who had recently died while taking hallucinogenic drugs. He basically raised the possibility that the Brandeis Orthodox Organization (BOO) and its members could have done more to make this particular individual feel welcome in the Jewish community at large. I do not think that he was implying that we blame ourselves in any way for this student’s tragic death. While some people took issue with what he said, I feel the rabbi was trying to address a larger issue – that of the Orthodox community being more open and working to reach out to all Jews in the Brandeis community, not being content to just let the community remain socially divided along denominational lines.

Another key point that I have heard Rabbi Frazer make several times on various Shabbatot is how one should not discount the significance of whatever level of religious observance one may be at in their life, that each one of us excels in certain things. Based on students talking to him and his own observations, it was clear to him that there was a sense of competition within the community, as in “who is more religious than whom?” Yet what impressed me even more than his taking a stand against this mentality in a public way was his desire and ability to do it from a Torah-oriented stance rather than a self-righteous or accusatory one. This to me is one major mark of a great leader – to be able to positively challenge others in a way that inspires them to challenge themselves.

Connected with this is his remarkable ability to weigh the legitimate concerns on various halachic/Jewish issues that have arisen in our community. For instance, when I asked him about what I should do on Yom Kippur, since I have had problems with fasting in the past, he took the time to explain the halachot related to the various amounts of food I was allowed to have in each different level of health-related danger. What struck me were his listening skills, his vast knowledge of halacha, yet also his unashamed willingness to admit when he does not know an answer to a question, and his sincere concern for my needs. Rabbi Frazer is not someone who will simply spit out the answer to every halachic question you ask him. He will often take out a Mishna B’rurah or gemara and go over it with you and thus empower you to learn the sources themselves rather than just rely on his word alone.

After I got more and more comfortable around him, I decided that I would talk to him about a personal issue. While I do feel that there are people in my life who are much closer to me than Rabbi Frazer (such as my parents, siblings, and close friends), and that I would thus relate to easier, it is not the same as talking to a rabbi. I felt completely safe while talking with him about this issue. He was not at all judgmental; he listened with compassion, and provided insight where appropriate. He thanked me for sharing such a personal concern with him (since it exhibited a mutuality of trust). Since then, I have felt much more easy-going around Rabbi Frazer.

I am grateful that I challenged myself to get to know Rabbi Frazer better. While he often comes off as reserved, I have tried to convey to others how personable he is once one gets to know him, and how much they would be able to learn from him. It is stated by Yehoshua ben Perachyah in Pirke Avot: “Aseh l’cha Rav” – make for yourself a teacher/rabbi. And so I continue to make Rabbi Frazer my rabbi.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.

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