The ivy that’s been growing on the walls of major league American universities has been around for a long time… long enough to see the rise and fall of anti-Semitic influences on student quotas as well as the creation and establishment of Hillel Houses on campuses across the country. The first Hillel house was established in 1923 and today, with 85% of college age Jews pursuing the dream of higher education, they are flourishing nationwide. In partnership with Hillel, the OU’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) advances Torah education at secular universities by providing spiritual development and exploration for Jewish students from all backgrounds.

And at one Ivy League college in particular, JLIC educators Rabbi Ben Greenberg and Sharon Weiss-Greenberg have taken it one step further with a unique and creative approach that brings Torah and technology together at Harvard….

Article by Rabbi Ben Greenberg

“It was our first day on campus as the new Orthodox Union Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple at Harvard University. Our Harvard Hillel colleague had just concluded giving us a tour of the campus, including Harvard Yard, the residential houses, and the various graduate schools that make up the Harvard Square neighborhood in Cambridge. As we were passing the imposing and austere looking statue of John Harvard, I turned to him and asked, ‘How many Jews are there on this campus?’ He responded by saying that approximately 25% of the undergraduate student body is Jewish and when including the Jews in graduate programs, whether it be the Law School, Medical School, or Graduate School of Design, the number easily reaches the thousands.

Even if my wife and I were to give five shiurim a day and spend the duration of our time on campus connecting with every individual Jewish student, we couldn’t possibly interact with thousands of Jews throughout the vast network of Harvard’s world. How could we best manage the tension between breadth and depth? What mechanism could we employ that would allow us to both be there for the one-to-one chevrutot sessions and shiurim, where attendance could range from five to fifty people? Even more importantly, how could we tap into the hearts and souls of the thousands of other young Jewish adults all over Cambridge and beyond? It didn’t seem possible with a limited budget and a staff of two that we could accomplish both at the same time.

This tension between deep, time-intensive engagement and broad reach is precisely where the technological advances in the way we communicate with each other via social media have become so tremendously powerful. The first step my wife and I took was to create a website specifically for Harvard JLIC where we could showcase our upcoming Torah classes, social events and guest teachers. We created a fan page on Facebook for Harvard JLIC where we could list upcoming events, and also invite large numbers of students to those events; this enabled us to interact with our students throughout the day while they were physically in class or studying. We also utilized Facebook to advertise major programming by creating advertisements that we could customize or filter, displaying only to Jewish students at Harvard. In order to maximize our reach on social media, we setup a Twitter account that has been successful in keeping us in touch with graduate students (who are more likely to use Twitter than undergraduates). We estimate that every week we interact with 600 students through social media alone.

At first, when we began our adventure into social media, I was unsure of the impact that it was having. Were our various postings on Twitter, Facebook and our weekly e-newsletter really reaching our students beyond the simple click of the mouse? The value of these various tools was solidified in my mind during winter break when a student from NY expressed how much my weekly “Thought on the Parsha” had helped frame his experience of Shabbat that week. Similarly, another student confided that the only reason he came to an event of ours (which brought him back into the fold of the campus Jewish community), was because an advertisement for it displayed on his Facebook profile; at that point I knew our investment in this project was well worth it.

Where will we go next in exploring the ways in which social media allow us to reach hundreds of students simultaneously? We have just begun to explore video as a method of maintaining relationships with the students on campus and initiated a YouTube channel for Harvard JLIC. For now, we are posting weekly video Divrei Torah related to the Parsha on the channel, but hope to include videos of events, shiurim and other moments. We have discovered that not only current students value these opportunities to connect, but we have even been able to keep in touch with graduates of the past year and anticipate doing the same with the future graduating classes.

It is a fantastic privilege to be able to serve, teach and be in relationships with the inquisitive, brilliant and sensitive young adults on the Harvard campus. It is a guiding principle that all of our efforts: the Torah we teach our students, the Shabbat meal we share with them, or the casual conversation we have in passing, could leave an indelible imprint on the lives of people with vast potential for both the Jewish community and the world at large. Thus, we take the responsibility to reach and work towards inspiring all the Jews on campus, both those who come from Orthodox homes and those who do not, with the utmost sincerity and devotion. Social media has enabled us to be present all the time in the lives of hundreds of students, in every corner of the Harvard orbit, in a way that would have been impossible prior to its advent.

For more information, please visit: Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) Online

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the Co-Director of the OU Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Harvard, the Orthodox Rabbi of Harvard Hillel and the Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University. He is the author of Covenantal Promise and Destiny: Wisdom for Life and compiled, Twitter Torah, a collection of short Divrei Torah. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife Sharon Weiss-Greenberg.