c. 2003 Religion News Service

Rabbi Yehuda Seif, 25, and his wife, Orit, 23, arrived at theUniversity of Pennsylvania last August to start something, though not thegraduate program one might expect from people their age.

Instead, the Seifs were there to begin their stint as a "Jewish LearningInitiative" couple.

The 3-year-old JLI program places young married couples on secularcollege or university campuses to act as teachers and counselors to OrthodoxJews who struggle with questions on everything from Jewish law to schoolworkto the challenges of living a religious life in secular surroundings.

JLI has a presence on six U.S. campuses: Yale, Brooklyn College,Brandeis, UCLA, Cornell and Penn, with new campuses being added every year.

The program explicitly does not try to compete with other major Jewishcampus initiatives, most notably Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish CampusLife.

On most of the JLI campuses, the couple has office space in the Hillelfacility, and the couple often shares Shabbat meals and other holidaycelebrations with the larger Jewish community.

And JLI works in conjunction with other Jewish organizations includingthe Orthodox Union, which sponsors the program, and Torah MiTzion, which isa Zionistic Torah study group.

Because there has been such cooperation, organizers say that the programis just now ready to emerge nationally.

"The reception was very cautious" when JLI first approached campusesduring the organization's formation, said Naomi Berman, who was involved inplanning the program's launch and serves with her husband as a JLI scholarat Brandeis University, which was one of the two inaugural JLI campuses.

It took some convincing -- and some time -- for people to realize thatthe group was not planning to coerce Jews into a more observant lifestyle.

Instead, Berman said, "we were interested in enriching everyone's Jewishexperience wherever they are."

At the heart of the program's success is the idea of having a marriedcouple, offering both a strong male and female presence in the community.

Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, so while young womenoften speak to male rabbis on questions of Jewish law or morality, they cansometimes feel uncomfortable going to a man with a personal quandary orintimate issue.

"It's important to have a presence as role models sharing equalparticipation in a vibrant Jewish existence," said Berman, who teaches groupclasses for women only and counsels women on issues from sexuality tograduate school.

In addition to the official learning the JLI couples conduct, there isthe more informal phenomenon of students getting to see how a young marriageworks, in the unusual situation of the husband and wife sharing office spaceand work responsibilities as well as home life.

"Students get to see us together a lot," said Orit Seif. "They get tosee the dynamics of our marriage; they get to see the interplay of ourpersonalities."

Seif, who uses examples from her marriage in her counseling sessions andconversations with students, hesitates to use the words "role model" todescribe this aspect of her work. But she said it is a good way for youngpeople who might be contemplating marriage themselves to see that a healthymarriage includes both ups and downs.

"They really get to see a family, a couple working together, both asindividuals and as a team," she said.

It's been "positive," agreed Yehuda Seif, who said there are more than350 Orthodox students at Penn, between 50 and 60 of whom study weekly withthe Seifs.

"It's nice to spend time with your spouse while you're working. It'snice for students to see that type of interaction," he said.

Students also say that the youth of the couples plays a role in strikinga connection with 18- to 22-year-olds.

And in the Seifs' case, an added bonus for students is that both Oritand Yehuda attended Columbia University, so they have experience with beingOrthodox in a secular university setting.

"The fact that they come from an education and background similar toours makes a huge difference in terms of understanding where we're comingfrom," said Melanie Mund, a Penn junior who studies one-on-one with OritSeif each week.

Mund ticked off a list of challenges and issues that face Orthodoxcollege students, including the pressures of schoolwork given that OrthodoxJews do not work on the Sabbath or on major holidays.

Also, Mund said, the secular social scene is tempting with its fratparties and drinking.

"It's very tempting to get involved with that," she said.

But having a tight-knit community with leaders like the Seifs helps Mundfeel like she can meet "the biggest challenge," which is "not losing sightof why you are part of the religious community."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus