Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, who have served as the OU-JLIC educators at UCLA for 14 years, give an insider’s perspective on the incredible work that OU-JLIC does on campus.
We’ve been living and breathing college life for the past two decades. As students, and now as Educators, our days are filled with lots of coffee, abundant pizza and continuous drama. But it’s the personal stories, the challenging questions and the uniquely explorative conversations that keep us on campus. Where else could we find the diversity of experiences, the curiosity and the intellectual honesty in the way that it’s found within the college demographic? We love that college life exists in high definition, with students functioning at their peak in so many arenas. We are surrounded by people who are socially engaged, academically driven and intellectually curious. We thrive on the exhilarating energy and fresh perspective that is hard to find elsewhere. We are blessed to be working with students as part of the OU-JLIC team, striving to offer this exciting and evolving demographic all that they need to thrive as Jews on campus.
A day in the life of an OU-JLIC Educator involves a diverse array of students with a wide range of needs and interests. While there’s an ongoing schedule of chavrutot and classes structuring each week, there’s a definite element of unpredictability that is triggered by current events, campus events and personal events that unfold anew on a daily basis. The expected flow of students cycling through Hillel to learn, to meet and—of course—to drink coffee is punctuated by the continuous ding from text messages appearing throughout the day. An alumni with a Halachic question, a student who needs parking, a kallah looking for classes, an unfamiliar kosher symbol that needs clarification, a community program seeking a panelist, a Rabbi recruiting from Israel, an alumni wanting a letter of recommendation, a stranger with a Shidduch question, a visitor needing Shabbat hospitality and the mom of a high school senior with ‘just a few’ questions, all populate our phones, hoping for an immediate response.
“While there’s an ongoing schedule of chavrutot and classes structuring each week, there’s a definite element of unpredictability that is triggered by current events, campus events and personal events that unfold anew on a daily basis.”
Life in college has its own special pace. Operating on ten-week quarters, every week is numbered, every day counts and finals occur on the heels of midterms. Events are constantly popping up on Facebook and the need for everyone to stay current and informed is acute. Social networks mobilize rapidly and crowds can quickly be gathered to support a cause, protest an issue or celebrate an event.
And how many events there are! Campus takes the typical structure of Jewish living and makes it pop. Daily minyan is followed by a discounted breakfast at Hillel’s Coffee Bean for minyan goers as the minyan men morph into a breakfast club, reading the newspaper and cooking fresh eggs in a sandwich maker. There’s a Mincha text list that broadcasts the Minyan times daily along with an interesting fact of the day. Quarterly Facebook polls determine the most ideal time for shiurim to take place and WhatsApp groups keep everyone in the know even when they’re dispersed all over campus. Passionate ping-pong tournaments draw a crowd after dinner on Friday nights and our unique Shavuot celebration is punctuated by an annual DvarTournament, Cholent Cook-Off and midnight Brachot Bee.
Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the food! Can you imagine feeding the same group of students seven different times over the course of one Shabbat? Because we can! In college, besides the three typical Shabbat meals, we offer kiddush before the meal, an oneg after the meal, snacks throughout the afternoon and even an early morning breakfast for minyan goers. Because there is no kosher cafeteria on campus, every day of the week (except Friday) features an OU-JLIC lunch and learn, with a hot kosher meal for participants. With snacks in the office and snacks at programs, weekly communal Shabbat meals, Mishmar with Cholent, lunch meetings in Hillel’s Kosher eatery and daily Shacharit with bagels, our OU-JLIC experience vigorously affirms the adage of ‘im ein kemach, ein Torah,’ ‘if there is no flour, there is no Torah’ (Pirkei Avot 3:17). Working with the kashrut agencies, coordinating with caterers, shopping, preparing and presenting food are key programmatic elements that are omnipresent, and yet seamlessly inserted behind the scenes.
“OU-JLIC Educators are in the business of understanding and enriching this incredible generation of students.”
And it doesn’t happen without the money. Fundraising has become an increasingly dominant part of our professional portfolio, propping the fiscal calendar up right alongside the academic one. As the Directors of the OU-JLIC West, we are tasked with raising significant funds each year. We host a large fundraising social for students and alumni at the beginning of the year, attracting over 400 people, and an annual raffle for the community at the year’s end. We send out multiple donor mailings, engage in individual solicitations, cultivate potential donors and nurture existing ones at many junctures throughout the year. We participate in a significant grant allocation process with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; we generate new ideas, craft proposals, present to committee members and host site visits. We manage our budget, supervise other OU-JLIC Educator couples, oversee interns, maintain a cadre of active student leaders and regularly engage with our Hillel and OU-JLIC colleagues.
As part of a larger Jewish community we partner with other Jewish organizations both on and off campus. We gratefully work with Chabad and JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement) at UCLA and maintain warm personal and professional relationships with them. We partner with the Jewish graduate student groups and the Sephardic groups, we write articles for the Jewish student newsmagazine and we function as a resource for the Jewish fraternity and sorority. We speak at Hillel events and teach at staff meetings. We give shiurim at local shuls and participate in a myriad of communal events.
We teach and mentor young professionals and maintain deep individual relationships with many of our alumni. As a result, we’re blessed to have many opportunities to teach chattanim and kallot before their weddings and officiate at their weddings. Being on campus long enough, we have been able to follow alumni through their life cycle experiences. We coach them through dating, engagement, the beginning of marriage, in-law dynamics, pregnancy, parenting, career changes, health issues and relocations to new communities. We mentor them through religious issues, answer their Halachic questions and console them through break-ups. We’ve celebrated at Brit Milahs, officiated at Pidyon HaBens and rejoiced with alumni at their children’s Upsherins.
“We teach and mentor young professionals and maintain deep individual relationships with many of our alumni. As a result, we’re blessed to have many opportunities to teach chattanim and kallot before their weddings and officiate at their weddings.”
We welcome the students into our life as well. We were touched as students walked miles in the rain to celebrate with us at our son’s Pesach Bris and joined us for our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah at Hillel, right across the hall from where she was named 12 years earlier. The students teach our kids new board games, new languages and new ways to look at the world. We spend virtually every Shabbat together, celebrate holidays together and watch the Super Bowl together. We buy them caffeine at midterms and they send us mishloach manot on Purim. We’re a community and an extended family. Our lives are enmeshed and intertwined.
So while experts work to discover and uncover the unique demographic that is GenZ, OU-JLIC stands at the front lines actively engaging and inspiring them regularly. Catering to their daily needs (alongside their culinary ones), OU-JLIC Educators are in the business of understanding and enriching this incredible generation of students. The Educators are remarkable individuals, with a lot of energy, tenacity and an impressive wealth of skills, knowledge and empathy. We are proud to be part of this optimal team, that is powerfully and positively affecting the Jewish experience of individual students, entire communities, and, in fact, the future of Orthodoxy in America.
Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan serve as the OU-JLIC educators at UCLA and as the Directors of OU-JLIC West Coast. Sharona Kaplan is also a National Senior Manager of OU-JLIC.