From Campus to Congregation: Rabbinic Reflections

Article By: Rabbi Noah Cheses and Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

Rabbi Noah Cheses served as an OU-JLIC educator at Yale University from 2011-2014 and is now the assistant Rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto. He is the incoming senior rabbi at the Young Israel of Sharon. Rabbi David Wolkenfeld served at Princeton University from 2009-2013 and is now the senior rabbi at Anshei Shalom B’Nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.

On a regular basis people approach us to ask about our work on the college campus. Do we miss the excitement of working with bright university students? How did we deal with sensitive issues such as gender equality and LGBTQ within a traditional Orthodox community? Did our experiences on campus prepare us for the pulpit? We often share stories, with great nostalgia, about hosting politicians and professors at our seders, convening conferences on the future of modern orthodoxy, and singing zemirot late into the night late night around our animated Shabbat tables. We certainly miss our idealistic students and the dynamic campus culture in which we worked.

Looking back, we believe that the most important skill set that we developed on campus was the ability to build community one relationship at time. We devoted most of our days and nights to building personal, deep and trusting relationships with as many students as possible. We had so many ongoing conversations about friendship and love, divine providence and career choices. It was across the bridge of these relationships that we were able to transmit relevant and powerful Torah. Relationships evolved into networks which became micro-communities within the open, inclusive and diverse orthodox communities that we served. Honing this ability to build community through individual relationships has enabled us to do the same in a congregational setting.

In Toronto, Noah has created a vibrant community of young professionals by using the same methodology that he used on a college campus. Significant one on one time—usually split between spiritual counselling and Torah learning—has led to the formation of a new Young Professionals committee that meets every six weeks to plan meaningful and fun events for themselves and their friends. Innovative programs such as Living Room Learning, special meat kiddushes, and mystery Shabbat lunches have attracted many new members and have brought many current members from the periphery of the community to the center.

Our time on campus afforded us the unique opportunity to be exposed to and to understand the future trends of Modern Orthodoxy in America. A recent article on addresses the growing challenges in maintaining synagogue membership. Young Jewish professionals are resisting institutional affiliation and this is having a significant impact, even on Orthodox shuls. Many major synagogues have diminishing attendance at the main minyan on Shabbat morning. Millennials are opting for opting for niche minyanim, whether it be a hashkama or house minyan, in order to satisfy their davening needs. The desire for micro-communities is one of many social-religious trends that began on campus years ago and is now having a profound impact on the larger communal structure of the American Jewish establishment. We have learned how to serve the needs of this generation while convincing them of the importance of the “main minyan” and affiliation with the large orthodox institutions. An example includes having a monthly Carlbach Friday night davening that alternates between someone’s home and the shul.

Another need that we have become sensitized to is the growing interest of well-educated young woman to be actively involved in public ritual. We both worked on campuses with active and growing Partnership Minyanim. We each came to the conclusion that halakhic and policy reservations would prevent us from endorsing or attending those minyanim yet we each decided to refrain from opposing the partnership minyanim with a “scorched earth” strategy that would have sacrificed our relationships with the partnership minyan leadership. For many of our students, even among those most committed to Torah and mitzvot, the importance of preserving the boundaries of Orthodoxy, as determined by mainstream Orthodox poskim was highly attenuated. Orthodox students respect halakhic guidance when it is explained and justified; they are less deferential to ex-cathedra pronouncements that are asserted on the basis of authority.

Women in college have not started their careers, much less confronted the “glass ceiling” or faced the tension between being a mother and a professional. Men in college have not yet had to navigate the conflict between the financial expectations placed upon them, implicitly if not explicitly, by their families and communities and their desire to share the burdens of childcare and household responsibilities with their wives. Gender distinctions on campus are insulated from the stressed of the real world, even as they offer a progressive vision of how our communities could provide more equal opportunities for leadership and Torah scholarship to men and women. This perspective and experience equips us to have informed, sensitive and consensus building conversations across generations in our congregations about the role of women in Orthodox synagogue life. Being on a college campus also gave us exposure to the broader tent of American Jews. We interacted every day with all sorts of campus rabbis and students—from humanist to Chabad and everything in between. Understanding other denominations and being comfortable conversing with them has given us the unique ability to lead beyond the walls of our Orthodox synagogues.

A year ago, Noah embarked on a new project in Toronto, to model the power of interdenominational conversations and to facilitate a wide spectrum of Jews talking to each other about big ideas. Could four rabbis – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – sit together and discuss substantive issues of modern Jewish life in a public forum? The result was “Young Rabbis Speak,” a four-part series, focusing on Jewish Text and Authority; Jewish Identity in a Hyphenated World; Judaism, Gender; and Sexuality, and Israel: The Four Rabbi Solution. The conversations have been deep and delicate. The forums have demonstrated the capacity to disagree candidly, to care differently about the Jewish future and to do so across abiding friendships. Hundreds of young committed Jewish professionals flock to these open and honest discussions about issues that matter in their lives. The members of our shul are proud that their rabbi can represent the orthodox perspective intelligently and respectfully.

Although campus communities are younger than conventional congregations, so many of the same dynamics and stresses exist on campuses. Students struggle with ailing and infirm parents, they have challenging relationships with in-laws, and they suffer from depression and other mental illnesses. Professors mourn the deaths of parents and spouses, they confront the challenge of children who choose different religious paths, and they navigate the tension of learning how to share communal leadership between diverse stakeholders that include transient students and long-term residents. For all of the unique elements of campus communities, time and again, in our experience since leaving campus, people are people, communal life will be communal life, and “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, Director of Jewish Career Guidance and Placement at Yeshiva University: “The campus rabbi is fully immersed in the social and cultural mores of today’s young adults. The young adults who seek the OU-JLIC rabbi are in all probability going to be the leaders of their congregations in the future. Simply put the campus rabbi has unique exposure to the next generation of Jewish leadership and the culture they are experiencing at a very idealistic time in their lives.  The campus rabbi is not restricted by walls and is very comfortable moving in and out of different venues to connect with his target population.  As an Orthodox rabbi on a campus they are the go to person for issues of inter-faith and inter denomination interaction. This is invaluable experience for assuming a rabbinic position in a community where a rabbi must interact to fulfill the Torah’s command to act with the world in the ways of darchei noam. My experience is that the JLIC rabbis not only transition well into the formal rabbinate but they bring outstanding leadership with them. The campus provides a wealth of organizational, pastoral and leadership opportunities.

From Dr. Shimmy Tenenbaum, long time president of Bnei Yeshurun, Teneck NJ and national vice president of the Orthodox Union:

Our OU JLIC Rabbinic educators are for all intents and purposes community Rabbis albeit for a very young congregation. On a very intense basis, they deal with almost all of life’s major issues including relationship issues, emunah concerns, serious illness unfortunately, marriage and more. In fact, the exposure and experience that our OU JLIC Rabbis and their wives receive in relation to life cycle events in the younger demographic is unparalleled when compared to the typical pulpit Rabbi. Our couples are “in the trenches” with their young charges and are not only learning and studying with them but also counseling them on many important and very sensitive issues. This proximity requires our Rabbinic couples to be available 24/7, and they are!

Often a young adult college student is much more comfortable seeking advice and guidance from a spiritual guide closer in age to themselves than your typical pulpit Rabbi. Our campus Rabbis have forged ongoing relationships with their student congregants that has resulted in many of our campus Rabbis serving as Mesader Kiddushin at their weddings. At the other end of the spectrum, when a student has taken seriously ill and needs help and transportation home it is our campus Rabbi who rises to the occasion. Our couples serve as spiritual guides, teachers, chavrutas, life counselors and most importantly, friends to thousands of students every year. Their preparation for future pulpit positions is unmatched by any other Rabbinic pre-pulpit experience.

From Barbie Lehman Seigel, Senior Vice President of the Orthodox Union:

The role of the Rabbi in a community is profoundly one of educational, moral and spiritual guidance.  He leads his synagogue, the cornerstone of Jewish spiritual growth, social connection and educational development. The synagogue ideally is a place of deepening Jewish identification and community.  The joining of these two aspects of Jewish life- community and synagogue- with all the complexities of the human experience, is rarely more evident than on the college campus. The college campus indeed, is the microcosm of community life- with its wide variety of members from varied social, economic, and religious backgrounds. What better place for a rabbi to stand his “trial by fire” than in a university setting?