Alumni Return to BU to Serve as Mentors and Spiritual Guides to Orthodox Jewish Students

24 Oct 2007


Who better to learn from than from people who have been there and done that? Starting this year, the Boston University Orthodox Jewish student body will benefit from alumni, Rabbi Avi and Shira Heller, who will serve as their spiritual mentors and guides through the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program, which arrived at BU this Fall.

JLIC operates in coordination with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Student Life and the Torah Mitzion organization to support and tend to the spiritual needs of the students. Although targeted to the Orthodox, JLIC is open to all Jewish students, regardless of level of observance. It is based at Hillel, with the couple being part of the Hillel staff as well as the OU staff. Rabbi Heller also serves as the Director of Jewish Education at the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House.

JLIC features intensive study of Jewish texts, Sabbath and holiday observance, daily synagogue services, as well as mentoring and good companionship. It is dedicated to the enhancement of Orthodox communities (kehilot) on campus by promoting positive growth and identity among Jewish students, therefore serving as one of the incubators of the future of Orthodoxy.

Boston University is the fifteenth campus and third in Massachusetts along with Brandeis and University of Massachusetts/Amherst to receive JLIC, which is now in its eighth year. Other participating schools include: Yale, NYU, Brooklyn College, Cornell, Princeton, Rutgers, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, University of Florida, University of Illinois, and UCLA. Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, also became a JLIC campus this year.

“Boston is one of the two most important university hubs in the country,” declared Rabbi Menachem Schrader, the Israel-based founder of JLIC. “The ‘bubble’ within which many universities exist requires a JLIC program for each and every campus where we plan on being.”

According to Rabbi Ilan Haber, Director of JLIC, “In expanding the JLIC program to Boston University, we have accomplished two very important goals. First, Boston University hosts one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, as well as a sizeable Orthodox population. Investing Jewish educational resources in this campus is an important contribution towards overall Jewish continuity and growth. Second, the Hellers are talented and consummate professionals. We are sure that they will have not only a critical impact on their campus, but that they will make significant contributions to the larger network of JLIC educators.”

The JLIC couples always have a secular education to complement their vast knowledge of Torah and to be able to better relate to students. Rabbi Heller, a native of Denver, holds a BA in Political Science and International Relations from BU (class of ’97), an MA in Bible from Yeshiva University, and rabbinical ordination from YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Shira, a New Yorker, who was his college sweetheart, holds a BA in Religion with a minor in Hebrew from BU (class of ’98). From their years at BU they are familiar with the challenges the secular campus presents to Orthodox Jewish students who previously attended Jewish religious schools for their entire educational careers.

“I have known the Hellers since they themselves were dating, when Shira was still a student and Avi had just graduated,” Rabbi Schrader said. “It was clear to me already then that should this ‘shidduch’ (match) work out, they would make a great couple to lead others in Torah Judaism when the time came. It looks like the time has arrived.”

Already Rabbi Heller and Shira have held successful learning and holiday programs which have drawn hundreds of students.In addition, they have added energy and numbers to existing Hillel programs, including leading more than 200 BU students in Simchat Torah processions on Marsh Plaza, the central hub of BU campus.

According to Elise Polaner, a senior at BU and former OU intern, “As the vice-president of the Hillel Student Board and the chair of the Religious Life Council, I work with Rabbi Heller in planning events and organizing the religious life at BU Hillel. I have had the opportunity to know the Hellers well. They are both energetic and enthusiastic about increasing and enriching Jewish life at Boston University. Students really can see their charisma and devotion to Jewish life at BU.”

“The Hellers have brought a number of new learning programs to Hillel, including events, mini-series on various Jewish topics and weekly learning programs,” Elise continued. “I know that BU students, whether they are Hillel regulars or not, appreciate their sense of warmth and openness to all. Rabbi Heller really takes the time to introduce himself to new students and to learn their names, and with Shira, has opened many doors for the BU Jewish community.”

On a daily basis, students are inspired to start their day with morning services and Torah learning. Hillel’s daily minyan (prayer service) draws around 20 students a day, the majority of whom stay for breakfast and “10 minutes of Torah” (textual study of sections of Jewish law) each day. Shira and the rabbi meet with students during the week to learn whatever they want, from the basics of Judaism, to the Torah portion of the week, to in-depth text study. Shira also directs the Women’s Rosh Chodesh group and offers “Coffee and Conversation” on Jewish topics relevant to students’ lives.

Every Thursday, Rabbi Heller presents his popular Prime Time Parsha on the weekly Torah portion, and, afterwards, leads a mishmar study at an off-campus apartment, in which students discuss trigger articles and key Torah themes while getting to know their peers and discussing meaningful issues in a relaxed atmosphere.

The Hellers and their children, Nadav Simcha, six, Rinat Miryam, three, and four-month old, Uriel Moshe are also often present at Hillel during Shabbat services, meals and programs, while their apartment off-campus on Longwood Avenue offers a warm and caring Shabbat environment for the students.

“It is critical to have a family unit for these students,” stated Shira Heller. “My kids see the Hillel students almost as extra aunts and uncles. The students all know my children; they are a wholesome addition to their college life.”

According to Hannah Terry Friedman, a freshman at BU who also learns one-on-one with Shira, “It has been very nice to have a couple on campus who know me on a personal and on a religious level. It is very comforting to know that in a school of 17,000 undergraduates, I also have someone I can talk to about everything ranging from school, halacha (Jewish law) and learning.”

To nurture and to challenge students intellectually, JLIC invites prominent educators to lead seminars on vital issues, ranging from Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict to love and marriage in the Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Heller not only teaches but learns from his students as well. “I have learned from my students that the spark of Jewish learning can be lit in many ways, often in non-traditional venues or moments,” he said.

“At BU, I would like to create a culture of Jewish learning and Jewish pride for students who want to learn more about Judaism. They should have all the access and incentives they need to gain essential Jewish literacy that will inform their choices as they graduate into the real world and as they become adults,” he declared.

For more information about JLIC programs contact the Hellers at 617-353-7200 or