There are lots of activities for Jewish students on local campuses. Most Jewish students are engaged in more than one activity, and most of them know each other. Now there are also two campus rabbis – and rebbitzens – providing home-based hospitality, educational programs, role models, and good feelings.
Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, his wife, Miriam, and their son, Mendel, have been in Irvine since 2009 when they became what his uncle, Rabbi Alter Tenenbaum of Chabad of Irvine, calls “a Chabad presence at UCI.” They do everything from hosting Shabbat and holiday dinners to tabling on campus to holding barbecues with other Jewish organizations on campus to holding kosher tailgate parties at Angels’ games. Rabbi Tenenbaum – a New York native who went to yeshiva in Los Angeles – even teaches a class on medical ethics at UCI’s medical school once a week.
Events sponsored by Chabad at UCI come in three categories, Rabbi Tenenbaum said. Education programs “instill pride in Judaism.” They may be about studying Torah, using an olive press, or baking a challah. What they have in common is that they explain the significance of what is being studied, and they are hands-on activities.
The second category of events is designed to promote Jewish unity. As Rabbi Tenenbaum explained, “We offer a home away from home with a husband, wife, and kids. Students see what it means to lead a Jewish life, and they become motivated to raise a Jewish family. They can also sit around, schmooze, and chill out.”
Miriam Tenenbaum said that they “fit as many people as we can in the house, usually about 30.” Once a month Chabad holds Shabbat dinner at the students center on campus, where 50 to 60 students can be accommodated. There were about 100 students for Sukkot Shabbat.
Finally, there is the issue of Jewish pride. “Even just having events instills Jewish pride,” Rabbi Tenenbaum explained. “We have Jewish Discovery on Ring Road on campus, and students can touch, taste, and feel the holiday. We also do tabling once a week.”
In a general sense, “Jews are very proud here,” according to Rabbi Tenenbaum. “All the students know each other and stand together.”
He continued, “Jewish life has been growing tremendously in the past year. It’s welcoming, there are a lot of programs, and there’s a lot to do and get affiliated with. If there are more Jews, we can do it even better.”
Rabbi Drew Kaplan is headquartered at the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach and Cal State Long Beach, but he has an office at UCI Hillel. He also travels to other college campuses – as well as high schools – in Orange and Riverside counties to “be there for students and encourage the love of Jewish people and Jewish tradition.” The Columbus, Ohio, native arrived in southern California in January with his wife, Rachel,
and daughter, Sophie. Rachel Kaplan is the head of Hillel at Cal State Long Beach, and the family lives just south of the campus. The couple hosts Shabbat dinners for students on that campus and elsewhere in the area.
Rabbi Kaplan, who graduated from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School – a modern Orthodox yeshiva – in Riverdale, New York, is “focusing on being a positive Jewish role model.” The big thing, he said, is to spread a love of the Jewish tradition, “which will ultimately spread a love of the Jews.” He looks for opportunities to teach students and served as the education coordinator for the Jewlicious Festival.
Rabbi Kaplan added that his biggest challenge is figuring out the rhetoric about Palestinian issues and critiques of Israel. He is bringing someone from StandWithUs to do advocacy training, helping the students to figure out what their voice should be, and encouraging the students to get involved.
“Right now I’m spending a lot of time getting a feel for the community,” he said.