OU JLIC Conference Informs Educators About Countering Risks on Secular Campuses

12 Feb 2009

The following is advice from an extremely knowledgeable source to parents of yeshiva high school seniors who are planning to attend secular colleges and universities rather than continuing their education at Jewish institutions such as Yeshiva University or Touro College: The students will be going from the “bubble” of kindergarten through twelfth grade to the different atmosphere of the secular campus. In this ambiance, the advice continues, “parents have no guarantee their children will remain observant.”

These were the words of Rabbi Menachem Schrader, the Israel-based Founding Director of the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program, which was created by the OU nine years ago to provide the atmosphere of Jewish study, community and leadership to keep students on the Orthodox path even in the hothouse atmosphere of the secular campus.

Rabbi Schrader delivered his message to the First Annual Conference for Principals and Guidance Advisors held at OU headquarters for an audience of 50, who came not only from the New York Metropolitan Area but from Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Boca Raton, Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia as well.

Rabbi Ilan Haber, National Director of JLIC, seconded Rabbi Schrader’s message. “What inspired JLIC,” he said, “was that parents’ investment in Jewish education – perhaps $200,000 (per student) over the years, stops at college. This is why Rabbi Schrader deemed the program necessary,” in other words, for the students to continue living Orthodox lives, even while surrounded by the lures of the secular campus.

Yeshiva principals and college guidance counselors may play a major role in determining whether a student winds up on a Jewish or secular campus.
“The better informed principals and guidance counselors are, the better informed Orthodox teens and their parents will be about determining the college that is right for them,” declared Rabbi Steven Burg, International Director of NCSY, the OU youth program, and Director of OU Program Development. “This conference provided high school principals and guidance counselors with the tools and understanding of what resources secular campuses really have to offer Orthodox teens, as well as the challenges Orthodox university students face there.”

Ira Miller, Dean of the Ramaz School in New York and Chairman of the JLIC Advisory Board, who played a major role in putting together the conference, emphasized the notion of challenges. “We hold our breaths when we let them go” to the secular campus, he said. “They are not finished growing yet, emotionally or spiritually. Where there are programs, we hope they find caring adults, young men and women giving of themselves to inspire confidence.”

That is exactly what they will find on JLIC campuses – 15 of them, 14 in the United States with the first program having started this academic year in Canada. The campuses are Yale and Brandeis (where the program began nine years ago, expanding campus by campus since then); Boston University, the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, Cornell, New York University, Brooklyn College, Rutgers, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois and UCLA; in Canada, there is a joint program at York University and the University of Toronto. More campuses are expected to be added in the years to come, given the necessary resources.

JLIC programs revolve around a young rabbi and his wife – known as Torah Educators — many of whom themselves are graduates of secular universities. They provide learning programs, religious services, kosher food, home-cooked Shabbat meals, and opportunities for socialization, while serving as mentors to their students. They create an Orthodox community on campus that is vital for keeping students on the derech (path) of Orthodox practice and belief.

The JLIC Community

It is the sense of community that provides the impetus for JLIC’s success, both Rabbi Schrader and Haber declared. “Proper Orthodox Jewish fulfillment exists only in a communal experience. When we send students to a campus, we want to send them to one with a communal Orthodox Jewish experience. To not do so is to betray the trust of the parents and the community,” Rabbi Schrader said.

Rabbi Haber agreed. Like Rabbi Schrader, he is based in Israel and spends much time flying back and forth to North America to observe the programs on the campuses – he and his wife Leah, in fact, were the initial Torah educators at Yale in JLIC’s first year. He looks for communities that are “open and accessible to Orthodox and non-Orthodox students, to make communities more spiritual for both, and to provide a plethora of opportunities for students to continue in their development.”

Although targeted specifically at the Orthodox, JLIC is open to any Jewish student. Rabbi Haber, with obvious pride, told the story of a student from a Reform Jewish background at the University of Illinois who exclaimed to him how Shabbat had been transformed, once JLIC arrived on campus in Champaign-Urbana.

Rabbi Haber also lauded the OU-Hillel relationship, calling it a Kiddush Hashem, Sanctification of God’s name, based on how the two organizations work closely together, with the JLIC programs taking place at Hillel facilities.

The OU event featured a panel discussion, “JLIC and Religious Life on the College Campus,” in which three Torah educators – Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of NYU, Rabbi Jason Rapport of Yale University, and Naomi Kohl of the University of Maryland — explained how JLIC functions on their respective campuses.

A keynote panel on “Religious Considerations in College Choices,” moderated by Rabbi Saul Zucker, Director of the OU Department of Day School and Educational Services, featured Rabbi Joseph Polak, Executive Director of Hillel at Boston University; Rabbi Ari Israel, Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Maryland; Rabbi Yehuda Seif, former Torah Educator at the University of Pennsylvania; as well as Rabbi Schrader.

Rabbi Seif noted that students coming from the double programs of the yeshiva, in which they are in school day and night with their Judaic and secular studies, are presented with hours of free time on the college campus. “Busy kids get into less trouble than kids with time on their hands,” he said. The antidote: “Torah studies with intellectual rigor, and that’s what JLIC does.”

Rabbi Polak told how the college experience can quickly turn religious students into non-religious students, giving such examples as poor kosher food; uninspired Torah teaching; ordinary Shabbat and Yom Tov observances; absence of Jewish peers who can set a good example; arriving at college at 17 – too early to make the transition successfully; a culture of football or fraternities/sororities on campus; and even difficulty of access to dorms and rooms on Shabbat because locks are electronic.

He advised the college advisors and principals: “Part of the agenda of the college counselor is that the entire yeshiva investment can go down the drain by the first semester,” if some or all of these conditions are present.

Rabbi Israel of Maryland advised that “there are probably only 30-50 universities that fit the bill” in providing the proper Jewish atmosphere, with JLIC at 15 of them.

In closing remarks, Allen Fagin, the Chair of the Orthodox Union JLIC Commission, which oversees the program on a day-to-day basis, called on the educators present to help “fine-tune the program from a pedagogical point of view and to create programs on campus that will be important in students’ lives”; to recommend where JLIC should expand, perhaps to community colleges where the program is not yet found; and given the scarcity of resources for expansion, to recommend what can be done on non-JLIC campuses to create a proper Jewish atmosphere.

“The whole conversation that takes place with parents and students about whether to send them to a secular school rather than to a Jewish campus is enormously difficult, raising all kinds of issues, including how to structure the dialogue to help make the correct choice,” Mr. Fagin he said. “We’re drawing on the experience of the educators in this room and on campus to help parents and students make the correct choice.”

Comments by the educators indicated that the conference’s message was well received.

“It was a wonderful and productive day!” declared Rochelle Tuchman, Assistant Principal for College and Academic Guidance at Shulamith HS for Girls in Brooklyn, NY. “Thanks for organizing it, this was a most valuable conference!” commented Michael Courtney, Associate Director of College Counseling at SAR Academy High School in Riverdale, NY. “The three of us from Boston who traveled down from Boston are very gratified to have participated,” added Rabbi Dovid Shapiro, Rosh Yeshiva, Maimonides School. “Thank you for all that you are doing to help our graduates once they get out to the campuses. Your involvement has the capability of changing lives,” summed up Dr. Rita Shloush, Head of School at Yeshivat Rambam in Baltimore.

The conference was coordinated by Simone Geller, JLIC Operations and Communications Associate, together with Rabbi Haber of the OU and Ira Miller of Ramaz.