New Jerseyans Make an Immediate Impact at the State University: Meet Rabbi Akiva and Nataly Weiss, New JLIC Couple at Rutgers By Bayla Sheva Brenner
At 400 strong, Rutgers University (counting its satellite campuses) boasts one of the largest Orthodox Jewish student populations on any secular campus in the country. It’s no wonder the community eagerly welcomed Rabbi Akiva and Nataly Weiss, the Orthodox Union’s new JLIC (Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) Torah Educators this fall. The couple’s mission is to help these students maintain their observance, while inspiring them to greater growth and commitment – an assignment the Weiss’s consider a “dream come true.”
Up until recently, secular campus life for the Torah observant student was far from an easy one to navigate. Yet every year, increasing numbers of Orthodox young men and women move out of the familiarity of their homes and communities into an unfamiliar and challenging environment. Responding to this dilemma, in 2000 the OU teamed up with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to launch JLIC, a program that has been sending young rabbinic couples to campuses across the country (currently numbering 15 including Canada), offering observant students inspiring Torah classes, daily minyanim, Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations, and personal counseling.
The Weiss’s appreciate the observant students’ challenges. “They’re in a secular environment and have to hold their own; the strength of their connection to Judaism is being tested,” says Atlantic City-born Rabbi Weiss, 31, who earned a bachelors degree from Touro College in Brooklyn and served in the IDF in the Givaati Brigade. “There’s no one pushing them anymore. On campus, they have to engage on a number of different fronts, whether it be about their beliefs about Israel, about God, or Torah. And they were not necessarily prepared to do that. To help strengthen and support them, to go on that journey with them is something we see as an amazing opportunity.”
Nataly, 27, from Twin Rivers, New Jersey, born in Israel, experienced the students’ difficulties firsthand. As a psychology major at the University of Hartford, Nataly dealt with the lack of physical and spiritual accommodations proactively; she not only launched a kosher section in the main cafeteria, but also arranged festive Shabbat meals for the other observant students on campus. “Being an Orthodox Jew on a secular campus was extremely challenging. I wished I had a rabbi or young couple whom I could be close to,” she says. “When JLIC became an option for us, it was a dream come true.”
Succeeding Rabbi Yisroel and Shoshana Porath, who during their three-year stay established a vibrant Orthodox resource at the Rutgers campus, the Weiss’s plan to continue the dynamic programming initiated by their predecessors while generating much of their own.
The couple offers a variety of weekly classes for men and women as well as holding one-on-one chavrutot (study partnerships) with the students. They also plan to initiate a Monday night Beit Medrash (study hall) program. “I hope to engender more of a Torah-centered atmosphere,” says Rabbi Weiss, “where the students learn for 20 minutes and then we provide them with dinner.”
“It’s all about creating relationships,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, National Director of JLIC, who stresses that the program’s primary aim is to cultivate a meaningful connection between the couples and the students. “The couples become an integral part of the campus community,” he says. “They live there, have students over for meals, hang out with them in the cafeteria, learn with them, and become a trusted accessible resource and support system.”
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity to be part of an organization created to help inspire students,” says Nataly, who adeptly balances her role as a wife and mother of three children under the age of two (including twins) with her other role as an erudite Torah educator. “We’re here for each and every one of them, to answer their questions, whether personal or halachic (pertaining to Jewish law), if they need a place for Shabbat, or dinner during the week, or if they just want to stop by our office to schmooze. The more we build a relationship with them the more they’ll come to trust us and ask for advice and guidance.”
Mimi Mendelsohn, 20, a senior at Rutgers, speaks for all the JLIC students when she says, “If it weren’t for this program, it would be exceptionally harder to be religious on campus. The JLIC allows students to find guidance in a couple they can rely on, relate to and trust.”
Following the original seeds planted by the Poraths, the Weisses are making certain that Rutgers remains fertile ground for Orthodox students.