For many young adults, the college years are a transformative time, when they will encounter new ideas, experiences and opinions they may hold onto for the rest of their lives. This is why Rabbi Dr. Leonard A. Matanky of Jewish United Fund of Chicago wrote, “For the Jewish community and for the sake of our Jewish future, this means that there is a short window of opportunity to ensure that our college students one day take their place in our collective Jewish story.”
Here in Orange County, Jewish students don’t have to search far to connect with their roots. Both Hillel and Chabad are active and highly visible in the colleges and universities in our community.
Since the 1960s, Chabad campus centers have opened their doors to every Jewish student, regardless of background or observance level, with programs that sponsor non-judgmental, open discussions. A unique quality of Chabad’s campus centers is the leadership provided by a couple, a rabbi and his wife, who live on or near campus and strive to create an atmosphere where students can seek guidance on a variety of social, educational and spiritual issues. Shabbat dinners are regular events that draw students who appreciate the homelike atmosphere.
In Orange County, Rabbi Zevi Tennenbaum and his wife Miriam actually live across from the University of California campus and recently acquired a second house down the block which serves as a 24/7 “home away from home” for students.
“The advantages of living across from the campus are great,” said Tennenbaum. “This new facility gives not only gives us an opportunity to do more programming, but we want students to feel it is a safe haven for them at any time.”
In addition to Shabbat dinner, there is a weekly Kosher pizza class on campus that centers on discussions of different aspects of Israel and is co-sponsored with AFI, a pro-Israel organization on campus. “Most students who identify as Jewish are pro-Israel, even in varying degrees. It is important that they turn up to Israel events,” said Tennenbaum.
New this year is the Sinai Scholars Program, an eight-week course that integrates the study of classic Jewish texts, social programming and national networking opportunities. “It has served to whet students’ appetite for Jewish thought,” said Tennenbaum.
Holiday events are always a big deal. During Sukkot, Chabad conducts a “Sukkah Hop,” which involves visiting different sukkahs around Irvine; and of course there are Pesach seders for those students who remain on campus, and the Menorah lighting at Hanukkah.
In addition to UCI, Chabad has a presence on two other campuses. Rabbi Shuey Eliezrie and his wife Blumi of the Tustin Chabad welcome students from Chapman University at their bimonthly dinners, classes and lectures. “Lots of nice kids come through the doors and are looking for a place to connect to their Jewishness,” Eliezrie said.
Melissa Finger, a student at Chapman, was very pleased to find the presence of Chabad on campus. One of the events she particularly liked was the menorah lighting. “Hillel hosted us, and it was really nice to see all the Jews on campus come together,” she said. “I enjoy the shared enthusiasm of all of the Jews that attend events and to be in such a welcoming environment.”
Rabbi Levi and Naomi Blesofsky have been connecting to students on the Cal State Fullerton campus throughout the past ten years. As well as conducting Shabbat dinners, they have hosted college students at their shul, Congregation Beth Meir Hacohen/North County Chabad, assisted in seders and sent students on trips through their partner Mayanot Birthright.
“We have been asked by many of the students to continue our lunch/learn programs a couple of times a month,” said Naomi Blesofsky. “And they are invited to attend the programs we have at our shul, including complimentary JLI Adult Education Classes.”
A sentiment articulated by all the rabbis and rebbitzens is that “interacting with the students is the best part. They are so receptive to the Jewish learning,” said Naomi Blesofsky. “Many have not learned since they were much younger and this is an amazing opportunity.
“Because so many Jewish students are electing to attend community colleges,” said Eliezrie, “Chabad of Orange County is planning to expand programs onto those campuses.”
Some might wonder if the existence of two Jewish student groups on the same campus creates a little competition. Not so. Here in Orange County, Hillel and Chabad have a good working relationship. “We work with Hillel on separate programs, and we share our calendars so we don’t conflict,” said Tennenbaum. “We have sometimes shared Shabbat dinners together.”
“There is plenty of work for everyone,” said Eliezrie. “We always schedule our Shabbat dinners on alternate weeks, so in reality, Jewish students can attend Shabbat dinners every week.”
“Students seem to be pleased with the presence of both Chabad and Hillel,” said Finger. “It gives them an opportunity to connect with their Judaism regardless of their backgrounds.”
“Having Hillel and Chabad on campus gives students choices,” says Dr. Gene Spiritus, Orange County’s Hillel Board President and Interim Executive Director.
Hillel has had a presence on Jewish campuses in Orange County throughout some difficult and proud moments. And it is not as if they are not active and proud of being Jewish. According to Spiritus, “Jewish students are engaged [on campus], the biggest problem is getting more Jewish students on campus.” But for those Jewish students who have made it to campuses in Orange County, Hillel is working diligently to provide a meaningful and safe Jewish experience.
For many years, being a Jewish student on an Orange County campus came with conflict and having to defend space and a presence. Jewish students at UCI, for many years, fought the lack of administrative and student support on campus. Rumors flew that students felt unsafe, and Orange County Jewish organizations scrambled to embrace and protect the students. But Hillel remained steadfast in educating Jewish students and more recently has worked hard to build relationships with non-Jewish students on campuses to shore up coalitions and educate the greater community on the Jewish community and Israel.
Hillel is active on campuses across Orange County. Though UCI has been highlighted due to active Muslim student activities and the annual “Hate Week” that demonizes Israel, Chapman and Cal State Fullerton have also provided students with active Jewish support. Forty students from Orange County universities and colleges joined the Birthright trip to Israel in June. Brad Erbesfield, Assistant Director of Orange County Hillel, recently returned from Israel and said, “This is one of the best trips I have ever taken.” In addition to 40 Hillel students, the group consisted of eight Israeli soldiers, similar in age to the students. “The days were packed!” says Erbesfield. The trip was staffed by Erbesfield and Lihi Gordon, Hillel’s Israel Fellow, and participants traveled from Kibbutz Manara in the north to Bedouin tents in the south. Additionally, many students took the opportunity to re-experience a Bar or Bat Mitzvah—or have one for the first time—atop Masada. According to Erbesfield, “They read a line of Torah, gave a D’Var Torah, and said the blessings.”
Israel is not the only focus for Hillel. During Passover, students were provided with Kosher for Passover meals, and Kosher for Passover food was made available to Jewish students across the campuses. Chapman University’s Hillel provides kosher Shabbat dinners every week for the Jewish students. The fact that Shabbat dinners are interchangeable between Hillel and Chabad ensures students receive kosher meals on Shabbat; UCI also offers “Shabbat to Go” meals.
It has been a difficult road for Hillel in the past few years, with several changes in professional leadership creating an uneven balance. Spiritus jumped in when previous Executive Director Jordan Fuchs asked him to join the Nominating Committee and eventually the board of directors. Finally, in December 2013, Spiritus was elected President of the Board and has provided interim relief for the vacant executive director position.
Despite the complexities, Spiritus believes there will be a resurgence of Hillel over the next year. “We’re working closely with everyone to keep things going,” he said. And Hillel is working hard to be inclusive of everyone. Putting students in charge allows them to develop their own ties to the Jewish community. And it is fitting, because in order to be successful on campus, students need to build and maintain these coalitions with Jewish and non-Jewish students. “Coalition building in many different facets is how this all works,” said Spiritus. The coalition building is evident at Chapman University as most of the students who engage in the Holocaust studies minor are not Jewish.
Hillel pulls its leadership from across the Jewish community, and its board includes faculty advisors from the three campuses, UCI, Chapman, and Fullerton. Jewish Federation and Family Services’ (JFFS) staff continues to be supportive of Hillel. In addition, JFFS’s Solomon Society also provides a mentoring program on the three campuses. “All board members are engaged,” said Spiritus.
There are three things Hillel would like the community to know:
• It is important to grow the Jewish population on college and university campuses.
• At Chapman University, the Jewish students are a vibrant Jewish community.
• Cal State Fullerton is a growing Jewish community.
Spiritus welcomes everyone in the community to be a part of Hillel: “We are alive and well, and growing!” It is imperative to support students on campus, and Hillel will continue to figure out how to get people in the Jewish community involved.
“The tide has turned,” said Spiritus.
“We have learned from past experiences.”
“It is especially important for Jewish students to have a place where they can be sure that they have a place to go to be with their friends and connect with the Jewish heritage,” said Tennenbaum. Here in Orange County, both Chabad and Hillel offer those opportunities to Jewish students on campus. A
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004. She served as the Vice President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation West Coast and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a Clinical Forensic Psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services and is a Psychological Assistant for a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife since 2004.