2016-06-30
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c. 2003 Religion News Service

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

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

The 3-year-old JLI program places young married couples on secular college or university campuses to act as teachers and counselors to Orthodox Jews who struggle with questions on everything from Jewish law to schoolwork to 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 Jewish campus initiatives, most notably Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

On most of the JLI campuses, the couple has office space in the Hillel facility, and the couple often shares Shabbat meals and other holiday celebrations with the larger Jewish community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's been "positive," agreed Yehuda Seif, who said there are more than 350 Orthodox students at Penn, between 50 and 60 of whom study weekly with the Seifs.

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

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

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

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

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

Also, Mund said, the secular social scene is tempting with its frat parties 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 Mund feel like she can meet "the biggest challenge," which is "not losing sight of why you are part of the religious community."

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