What Do Students Want? on Campus, Outreach Program Serves Orthodox Students’ Needs

One afternoon in September, Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women at Brooklyn College. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports. Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly-dressed young women are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, there are JLIC couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this September — as well as Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day-school world.

JLIC National Director Rabbi Ilan Haber, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington, says the program works in conjunction with Hillel at each campus, and only sends married couples.

“We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students,” he explains.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls’ seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says “it’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is their first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber says that as more and more modern Orthodox young people began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

In many ways, JLIC is similar to Chabad’s on-campus program: Both send a young rabbi and wife, who open their homes to students as well as providing a wide range of Torah classes, rabbinic services and personal outreach.

A major difference, however, is that the JLIC couples are sent to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd non-observant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” Haber confirms. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an inreach to Orthodox students.”

Also unlike the Chabad campus couples, who rarely have gone to college, the JLIC couples are university graduates.

Reuven Ibragimov graduated Brooklyn College seven years ago, and Nalini went to Barnard. Reuven says that when he was a student there was no Hillel rabbi on campus, and no way to find out what services or Torah classes were available for Orthodox students.

Moreover, he says, “I never saw my rabbis interact with their wives.”

At Brooklyn College, he and Nalini take their children with them to most events, and students clamor to hold two-year-old Meira in their arms.

“Students get so wrapped up in their careers, their classes, they forget about family responsibility,” Ibragamov says.

Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 as JLIC reps at UCLA. Over the past year they have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

Like other JLIC couples, the Kaplans work closely with Hillel. At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s welcome week this September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for his or herself, she believes.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director, thinks it’s a shame.

“Between JLI, Chabad and JAM,” a southern-California based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” he charges. “If a kid wants to study Talmud, he can learn with Aryeh” Kaplan, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?” There’s no liberal rabbi to guide him, Seidler-Feller points out.

That doesn’t seem likely to change, at least not soon.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, says funding campus professionals “is important” to the Conservative leadership, adding, “we are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, notes that there are Reform students on “several hundred campuses” and says it would be “a fantasy” to think of hiring professionals to serve all of them.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” he says, adding that he believes a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would they increase from 5 percent to 10 or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

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