OU’s JLIC Conference Highlights Differences Between Secular and College Campuses

22 Feb 2010

As the young butterflies prepare to make their way from the cocoon of the yeshiva to the college campus, a decision of critical importance awaits them, their parents and advisors: whether to continue on to a Jewish college or to head for a secular campus. Increasingly, students are opting for the secular choice, and so their high school guidance counselors must be prepared to advise them on whether this decision is best for them.

To advise the advisors, the OU’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which sends a young rabbi and his wife to 15 major campuses in the Unites States and Canada to create the atmosphere of the yeshiva and to build an Orthodox community there, presented its Second Annual Conference of Yeshiva Principals and College Advisors at OU headquarters in New York. Administrators from yeshivas as far away as Columbus, OH and Chicago attended.

JLIC is found at Brandeis, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, New York University, Brooklyn College, Rutgers, University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, University of Illinois, UCLA and York University/University of Toronto in Canada.

Conference topics included “Religious Considerations and the College Guidance Process: Goals, Activities and Challenges;” “The Commuter vs. Residential Experience – Opportunities and Challenges for Religious Growth;” and “Preparing Students for the Challenges of Life on Secular Campuses,” which were supplemented by workshops in which the administrators debated various scenarios they may have to confront. These sessions provided a substantial grounding in the pros and cons of advising yeshiva students on whether or not to venture onto the secular campus with its different mores from the yeshiva and its enticements to leave Jewish observance behind.

“Torah is for life. You just can’t give teens a basic Jewish day school education and expect them to remain committed to it their entire lives,” declared Rabbi Menachem Schrader, the founder of JLIC and its guiding force. “It has to be a lifelong connection to Jewish learning, and even if there is no formal Torah education during college – there has to be informal education at the very least. When students come out of the cocoon of Jewish day school, we want to make sure that they’re going to be butterflies – but not every student soars immediately.”

Rabbi Schrader added that although students can prepare themselves for life on a secular campus, they are always surprised by how hard the reality is. That is where the JLIC couples (known as Torah Educators) come in, providing classes, one-on-one (chavruata) study, guidance, Shabbat dinners, holiday observances, and the atmosphere of living a complete Jewish life even on the secular campus. Many of the Torah Educators are themselves graduates of secular colleges.

“The adolescent years are searching years, and this only increases during the college years,” declared Edith Honig of the Ramaz Upper School in New York. “Teens are searching for their identities and place in the religious spectrum of Judaism.” She observed that many students don’t realize how alienating it is to be one of the few Orthodox students on a secular college campus and that they are not prepared for it. On the other hand, she said, some students like being the pioneers for Jewish life on a campus and helping to pave the way for other students to follow.

On JLIC campuses, no pioneering is necessary – the Torah educators have blazed the path for the students. “The college campus is perceived by many in the negative. I would like to speak about the positives,” said Rabbi Arye Kaplan, who with his wife Sharona are in their sixth year at UCLA. Natives of Teaneck, NJ, they have become full-fledged Californians while expending maximum effort to assure that their students are comfortable in their college environment.

Rabbi Kaplan pointed out that students who hail from Los Angeles have advantages over students who come from elsewhere. “Sacramento has no Jewish schools,” he said, “but the students become so strong, they come to minyan. When someone encourages them, even if it’s to come to one mincha (afternoon service) a week, they exhibit an extreme commitment to minyan.”

Susan Wolkenfeld, who with her husband Rabbi David is based at Princeton, said that her students “express a desire and a need to create a Jewish student community. They take leadership roles and have to make practical arrangements and decisions. Students learn a lot by responding to these challenges.” She added, “One person’s challenge is another’s opportunity, and vice versa.”

Princeton has the advantage of being a school in which all the students are residents. Not so at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Brooklyn is the classic commuter college, in which a community is hard to create because the students go home at night. That doesn’t stop Rabbi Reuven and Shira Boshnack from building their own community. “We create opportunities such as Shabbat minyan for students to attend,” he said. “We also have married students on campus. There are all sorts of different demographics. Our challenge is to bring these students together into one community.”

In their workshops, the administrators considered various scenarios, including the following one, on taking religious considerations into account in the college guidance process: “Sara has always wanted to study marine biology and wants to attend a university that has a strong marine biology program. However, each of the top three destinations for marine biology has little to no infrastructure for the support of traditional Jewish life.” To go or not to go, that is the question.

Although there is no definite yes or no answer, with the situation at all times depending on the student and family involved, one compromise solution developed by the administrators was to let the student attend summer marine biology programs while going to a stronger Jewish campus for the academic year.

In a review of the proceedings, Rabbi Ilan Haber, Director of JLIC and former campus rabbi at Yale in the early days of the program, declared: “The conference provided evidence of the need to increase our cooperation and partnership with those institutions from which students are entering secular universities, such as day schools, yeshivot and seminaries.”

“We received some important practical suggestions regarding how to ensure that we are able to identify and follow up with students even before they enter into the university setting, and we look forward to putting these suggestions into effect,” Rabbi Haber said. “It is important for JLIC to better understand the priorities, concerns, and pressures of college guidance advisors and to see things from their perspective. In addition, we were able to share our specialized knowledge, experience, and expertise to give them a wider view of their role in helping parents and students take religious considerations into account when making college choices. What was very clear is that we have a lot to learn from each other.”

Learning from each other was the point made by Allen Fagin, a prominent New York attorney who is Chair of the JLIC Commission. He called for advice from the principals and counselors on revising current programming as necessary for the greatest impact; on how quickly freshmen involve themselves with JLIC and strategies for reaching them; and whether JLIC is located on the right campuses. “Where are you sending your students?” he asked. “Are there campuses that will diminish in their Orthodox component, or grow in their Orthodox component?”

“We are living in a world of increasingly scarce resources,” Mr. Fagin said. He made it clear that input from the educators will be given full consideration by the OU as it determines how to allocate these resources to JLIC and its campuses in the years to come.