At UMass, JLIC Couple Creates Home Atmosphere for Orthodox Students

15 Sep 2006


Since classes began last week, the Orthodox Jewish student body of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has had something more to look forward to than the excitement of a new academic year and intellectual activity. Joining them are Rabbi David and Ariella Ruderman, a young rabbi and wife team from Israel, who are at the school as part of the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program, to support and tend to the spiritual needs of the students.

UMass Amherst is the thirteenth campus to receive the program, now in its seventh year, and the second in Massachusetts, alongside Brandeis. The other participating schools include Yale, Princeton, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Rutgers, the University of Maryland, the University of Florida, the University of Illinois and the UCLA. Johns Hopkins in Baltimore will join JLIC next fall.

The program is also available to students in the Five College Initiative, including Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges, as well as UMass Amherst.

The program, operating in coordination with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Student Life and the Torah Mitzion organization, features intensive study of Jewish texts, Sabbath and holiday observance, daily synagogue services, mentoring and good companionship and 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. The program is open to all Jewish students, regardless of level of observance.

JLIC contributes to a setting in which Orthodox students can be comfortable in an atmosphere on secular campuses that is far different from what they experienced in their pre-college yeshiva educations. Through the easy availability of Torah study daily, Shabbat and holiday synagogue services and kosher food, together with counseling and interaction with their peers, Orthodox students find a haven at which their yeshiva experiences are transferred to the campus — while at the same time they are participating in the academic life of their college.

JLIC rabbinic couples almost always have secular college educations to enable them to understand the situations facing their students. Rabbi Ruderman has a BA in political science from Ithaca College, while Ariella’s degree is in English literature from Smith College.

Now, after a week of classes, the UMass JLIC couple is working alongside students to provide a home away from home atmosphere on campus. This past Shabbat, the Rudermans welcomed approximately 100 students, the largest number of participants ever at a Hillel House Shabbat event, where their children, four- year-old Yosef and two-year-old Devorah, were a big hit.

“Being in the kitchen and hanging out with the students was the highlight of Shabbat for me,” recalls Rabbi Ruderman.

At UMass Hillel, the Orthodox students are the dominant force behind the Shabbat activities and are in charge of preparing the meals. “They really take a lot of pride in being the ones to make the Shabbat meals here, and they feel empowered and happy. It is exciting to see how they created this functioning student community here,” Rabbi Ruderman stated.

During the week, the Rudermans are working on developing individual connections and are spending time to set up chavruta (Torah study) sessions on Tuesday’s Beit Medrash (House of Study) Night and throughout the rest of the week. “Many students just returned from a year of study in Israel, and the chavruta sessions enable them to remain in the rhythm of Torah learning,” expressed Ariella Ruderman, who will also be teaching a for-credit course at the university on Jewish cooking from around the world.

Preparation for holidays, which start next Friday night, September 22 with Rosh Hashanah, has also begun. With the majority of students spending Rosh Hashanah at home, the couple is opening their home to those remaining on campus, and to make Yom Kippur more meaningful, students will be leading various parts of the lengthy services, with Rabbi Ruderman leading the rest.

“It’s interesting to see them step up to this new experience,” said Ariella.

Before the JLIC couple arrived on campus, the Orthodox students looked to Hillel and Kehillat Hillel Ha’Azinu (KHH), a group of Modern Orthodox students on campus, to meet their needs. KHH, which continues to provide support for Orthodox needs, looked to JLIC to bolster opportunities for growth in Torah on campus.

According to Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, Director of Hillel at UMass, who worked alongside Rabbi Ilan Haber, JLIC National Director, to bring the couple to UMass, “In the past few years we had a growing Orthodox Jewish student body who were looking to Hillel for resources Hillel thought JLIC would best provide. The students were very excited when I shared the JLIC couple idea with them, and some students worked really hard to lobby for them.”

“It has just been great so far — the Rudermans have really integrated into our staff,” he exclaimed. “From the moment I met the couple I thought they were terrific, warm and accepting. Now, after a week, I feel even more that they will help the students deepen their Jewish experience.”

After visiting the students and the Rudermans, Rabbi Haber reports,”The program is off to an excellent start, the couple has really integrated with the Hillel staff team and there is a very positive atmosphere among the students, who are grateful that they have such excellent role models and education resources in the Rudermans.”

The Rudermans will share many years of Torah study and their experiences of living in Israel with their students. In addition to his American college education, Rabbi Ruderman studied in Yeshiva Bat Ayin and Yeshiva HaMivtar in Israel, where he received his semicha (rabbinical ordination). Ariella Ruderman also studied Torah in Israel.