Interview by Hani Lowenstein, Associate Director of Community Projects, OU-JLIC:
Leead Staller (PENN ‘17) grew up in Connecticut and New Jersey. He attended TABC high school and spent two years learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. Leead was an active member of the Orthodox community at PENN. He served as the Co-Chair of OCP, the Orthodox student organization at UPENN, while in college. He is currently enrolled in Yeshiva University’s RIETS Semicha Program.
HL: How was the transition for you from yeshiva to college? What advice do you/would you give other students of the best ways to maintain their religious observance and commitment to Torah learning during college?
LS: Initially, the transition was pretty tough both socially and religiously. Socially, I had a uniquely difficult position being the only Shanah Bet student in Penn at the time. Friends I had gone to school with, learned with in Yeshivah, or even met over the college application process were all a year ahead of me and in full college swing by the time I arrived as a Freshman.
Religiously, having just spent two years in Yeshivah, I came to college with a mindset and a religious model that was very much defined by a specific time and space. At first, I tried my best to recreate my Yeshivah experience and, unsurprisingly, was disappointed when that proved untenable. For the first few months of college I had three Sedarim a day and managed to learn 6-8 hours daily between classes. When I wasn’t learning or studying, I tried to find people and experiences that felt “Yeshivah-like” and inadvertently closed myself off from many people and events that would later prove integral to my happiness in college. Obviously, this did not help combat my initial social struggles and eventually I reached a point where I had to reconsider my mindset and my approach to college. At that moment, I was lucky to have those older friends a year above me, who had already experienced the transition and learned from it.
The advice I would give, and what ultimately helped me make the most of my college experience, is threefold. Firstly, let college be college. Everyone comes in to college with expectations and preconceived notions, and that’s an essential and healthy part of maintaining stability throughout your life. But allow those notions to be challenged and don’t be surprised if those expectations need revision. College, and more specifically, the college community, is a unique experience and does not need to be fit into a different more comfortable model. Trying to make Penn into Yeshivah+ was a doomed venture from the get-go.
Secondly, I would advise to take advantage of the support and advice offered by older students. Upperclassmen are there waiting to become your friend, and they are an invaluable resource on every level of the college experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, vent, or just chat with older students. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll be able to take control of your college life.
Finally, take it slow. Between Freshman and Sophomore year, I changed majors, found new interests, and started many new friendships that would last me throughout my time in Penn. It’s easy to forget how long college is and how quickly things can improve or change. Things move fast and what is bad one week can turnaround in no time.
HL: What was your involvement with OCP and OU-JLIC at UPENN when you were in college? Were you involved in starting any innovative Jewish learning programs while on campus?
LS: Discussing my “involvement” in the OCP or with the OU-JLIC is a funny question to me. It’s almost like a loaded question. The OCP was not an extra-curricular, contained to specific events, or a club, defined by a specific group of people. The OCP was, and to an extent still is, my community. It was the backdrop upon which all the major parts of my social, spiritual, and often times even academic life took place. That being the case, Rabbi and Racheli Taubes, the OU-JLIC couple, were not just a “resource” to use, but were an integral part of my life. Sure, they were my teachers who would learn a Sugyah with me or answer a Halakhic question. But they were also the people I ate breakfast with every day, sat in classes with, watched movies with, babysat for, etc. etc. As much as the OCP was an integral part of my life in Penn, the Taubeses were an integral part of OU-JLIC.
I was particularly lucky, having had the opportunity to be the Co-Chair of the OCP. As one of the heads of the community, I was able to help facilitate the lively community, be it large-scale programming or one-on-one meetings about a problem a Freshman was struggling with. The OCP took over my life, and it was great. But more than that, I was able to get especially close with the Taubeses. The Co-Chairs had weekly meetings with the Taubeses to give updates and seek advice, as well as countless impromptu meetings to deal with specific situations. In addition to seeing the Taubeses as religious role models, I was able to connect to them as role models for leadership, and beyond that, just general adulthood. I saw how the Taubeses approached the various issues that would come up, how they interacted with people as leaders, and how they balanced all of that “political” community work with their religious commitments and devotion. I feel extremely lucky for the opportunity, and have a relationship with Rabbi Taubes and Racheli that extends well beyond my time as Co-Chair.
As far as innovative programming, as Co-Chair, all programming that took place was under my auspices, and there were a number of events I was proud of. We hosted the OCP’s first Mental Health Shabbat featuring a student-led panel, we brought Zushe in and put together an amazing concert, and we ran a huge banquet-style Fling Feast, providing religious Jews alternatives when the rest of the university had non-Shabbos friendly programming. But the innovative programming I’m most proud of was from my Freshman year. My first year at Penn, some of my friends a year above me had an idea for a Night Seder style learning program. They missed the communal aspect of learning Torah, and wanted to designate a time that everyone would get together and learn in the Beit Midrash every night. I was lucky enough to be there from the beginning and help create Night Seder at Penn (NSP), a nightly Seder program that was based on traditional Beit Midrash style Chavrusa learning, but featured weekly Mussar events, holiday-themed special programming, and ultimately, the creation of a strong learning community. Four years later, and Night Seder at Penn is still an integral part of the OCP’s Torah backbone, and I could not be prouder.
HL: What made you decide to become a Rabbi and what type of Rabbinic work are you interested in pursuing?
LS: When I was in High School, my dream was to get a Dual Degree from Wharton and make a ton of money in the business world. That dream was abruptly interrupted during my time in Yeshivah. Devoting myself to Torah, and moreover, having role models like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein to learn from, made me reconsider the role I wanted to play in the world and what I wanted to do with my life. During my Shanah Bet, I decided definitively that I wanted to be a Rabbi.
Initially, I thought I wanted to enter Chinuch and pursue a career of teaching, like my Rebbeim in Yeshivah. When I first got to Penn, that was still my goal, and I was lucky enough to give a weekly Gemara Shiur and teach a number of people one-on-one. However, as I got more involved with the OCP, and took on more leadership roles, I realized that, beyond just giving Shiur, I wanted to help facilitate people’s broader religious experience. I became absorbed with the OCP as a community, and religion as a communal experience. Then I became Co-Chair, and had an actual leadership position to pursue my newfound interests in communal leadership. My time as Co-Chair was the best experience I had in college, and I quickly realized that I wanted to pursue a future that would allow me to continue to work in communal leadership. Now, in my second year of Semichah, I’m Pre-Pulpit, an intern in a Young Israel, and planning on eventually becoming a pulpit Rabbi. But before applying to pulpit jobs, there is one dream job I want to pursue. After seeing the influence OU-JLIC had in Penn, and how the Taubeses were able to lead the community and love doing it, I realized the OU-JLIC was the job for me. So before going off to a career in the pulpit, I hope to pursue a position as an OU-JLIC campus rabbi.