I would like to draw attention to a group of 15 couples who are, without a shadow of doubt, changing the face of the Jewish college experience for the better, in a profound, meaningful and lasting way across North America and who rarely receive the recognition they deserve.
In campuses from the East Coast to the West Coast these couples are working diligently and tirelessly to improve, bolster and enrich Jewish collegiate life. They are operating at some of the most elite universities in the Western Hemisphere, from Yale to Princeton, and at some of the largest state schools in the United States, from the University of Maryland to UCLA. Their names do not appear on the front page of campus newspapers, their office spaces can be found oftentimes in the cramped basements of the local Hillel and each couple operates with an annual programming budget that represents a small fraction of the budget for just one or two large events at many campus Hillels. Yet, without their work, on 15 campuses throughout the continent, Jewish life for thousands of young American Jews would be that much more impoverished.
My wife and I have had the honor and distinction to count 14 of these brilliant, energetic and idealistic couples our colleagues for the past three years as we have worked at Harvard University in partnership with Harvard Hillel. The Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), a project of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with Hillel International, places these Modern Orthodox couples on campus with the sole objective of providing depth and substance to the discourse of Jewish life on campus; to provide nuanced, rich and meaningful Jewish learning and experiential opportunities to the nearly ten thousand college students JLIC interacts with on a yearly basis.
To highlight only one such example of the countless moments of impact and transformation:
Miriam Rosenbaum, a soon-to-be graduate of Princeton and a 2012 recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, expressed the following about the JLIC couple at Princeton, Rabbi David and Sara Wolkenfeld:
"The Wolkenfelds have always been there for me... They are like a mother and father away from home in that they are concerned not only with the Jewish aspect of my education but with the personal aspect as well. If I have a rough day I can have a cup of coffee with them, go to their house, play with their children. They are wonderful people. They work to strengthen the social bonds in the community besides their shiurim (Jewish classes), chavrutas (one-to-one learning) and other Jewish studies.
In the current campus environment where students experience little interaction with their professors, where many other Jewish campus professionals, for very legitimate and good reasons, live far away from campus and do not or cannot open their homes to students, JLIC is often the one place where students can find a warm, caring traditional Jewish home in consonance with modern values and intellectual pursuits. The homes of JLIC couples are always open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and many couples maintain an open door policy throughout the entire week.
My wife and I were the first JLIC couple at Harvard and as we transition from our work on this campus to other pursuits, I wanted to take a moment to call attention and lift up the names of our precious colleagues in this work: Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz and Toby Goldfisher Kaplowitz of Brandeis; Rabbi Reuven and Shira Boshnack of Brooklyn College; Rabbi Ami and Eliana Silver of Cornell; Rabbi Avishai and Naomi Magence of Johns Hopkins; Rabbi Gideon and Aliza Black of New York University; Rabbi David Wolkenfeld and Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld of Princeton; Rabbi Akiva and Nataly Weiss of Rutgers; Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan of UCLA; Rabbi Naftali and Tali Rothstein of University of Illinois at Champagne; Rabbi Eli and Naomi Kohl of University of Maryland; Rabbi Yosi and Sheera Eisen of University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Rabbi Jonathan Shulman and Dr. Jenny Oser Shulman of University of Pennsylvania; Rabbi Noah and Sarah Cheses of Yale; Rabbi Aaron and Miriam Greenberg of York and the University of Toronto. Each couple, as a unit and as individuals, are doing work that knows no end to the day and often receives no thank you and I want to, from the bottom of my heart, offer my thanks for being an inspiration and a beacon for Jewish home, Jewish values and Jewish tradition in the lives of thousands and thousands of students.
This program depends on each local Hillel serving as a catalyst for this remarkable endeavor and enabling these couples, who give of themselves in every way, to thrive and succeed on campus. It also relies on the generous support of people invested in strengthening Jewish programming and adding depth of Torah to what transpires in the Jewish college context. Anyone who is concerned with cultivating an environment of Torah engagement and promoting the values of Jewish hospitality and loving-kindness in the collegiate context consider getting involved with strengthening JLIC, and at the very least, say thank you to one of these phenomenal couples if you ever encounter them on the college campus.