Posted in Reunion Mag, on June 10, 2015

Changing Times

By Sharona Kaplan


I have been living on a college campus for over half of my life. I attended Stern College as an undergraduate and then lived at Yeshiva University as I earned my MSW and my husband studied for semichah. My most recent campus stint has been the longest, as I am completing my eleventh year working in the Hillel at UCLA as a Torah educator for OU-JLIC.

My kids were all born at UCLA, where we spent their early years living near frat row. We have played beer pong, accumulated lots of collegiate swag, answered bizarre halachic questions, taught dozens of kallot and eaten endless amounts of free pizza. We have seen generations of students come and go and watched with pride as they get married, start families, launch professions and pursue higher degrees. Each September we wait with open arms to greet the new students, cultivate the incoming leadership and embark on our next adventure.

While much of campus life is predictable from year to year (all the paper goods we buy will always be Bruin blue and gold, we will always sing “Shalom Aleichem” to the tune of “We Will Rock You” and someone will always be standing on a chair making announcements during the Shabbat meal) a decade of hindsight gives us a unique perspective about changes and opportunities within our Jewish community at UCLA. Three noteworthy trends that have emerged during our tenure on campus come to mind.


Greater Focus on Goals

When we first arrived at UCLA, Hillel’s mission of “Jews doing Jewish with Jews” was the basic approach, resulting in an array of social opportunities, BBQs, and holiday parties. To encourage socialization and build community, there was a free kosher dinner offered each week for students that attracted upwards of seventy-five individuals. Through these activities it was easy to meet students and cultivate relationships naturally.

Fantastically, over time, the programmatic focus sharpened. Phrases like “enduring commitment” and “enrich the world” were introduced into the communal mission statement, shifting the genre and tone of programming to one that is more strategic, purposeful and goal oriented. More Jews from UCLA were traveling on Social Justice Alternative Spring Break Trips, more learning opportunities were created, and the
design of any program started with a conversation about the
ultimate goal.


Increased Student Empowerment

In our early years on campus, it was primarily the professional staff that planned the programs and filled the calendar, and then recruited students to attend. Currently, it is predominantly the students conceiving and designing the experience for their peers.

The Millennial generation is typified as being detached from institutions and heavily networked with friends. That is why peer-based leadership and activities are so important to create enhanced Jewish experiences for their peers. It’s a resourceful and methodical model that empowers more individuals to serve as ambassadors of the Jewish community, extending its reach to more students and into unlikely pockets of our campus.

In recent years, students in our maturing OU-JLIC community have voluntarily assumed increased responsibility for the communal religious and social experience. They have initiated community-wide programming, be it a late night Mishmar for students, a communal siyum in memory of a loved one, a Jewper Bowl − Super Bowl party (complete with a student shiur at halftime) or shiurim that are prepared and delivered by a student to a roomful of receptive peers.


Expanded Leadership Base

Naturally, greater student empowerment creates an opportunity for increased leadership; the typical leadership structure has been redefined to allow for a larger number of student leaders. The older model of a “board” or “leadership team” has been replaced with many synergistic leadership cohorts filled with students acting as ambassadors for myriad defined projects within the Jewish community. Hillel at UCLA boasts eighty student leaders,
a remarkable cadre of individuals, each of whom is nurtured and cultivated as a leader through specific retreats, training workshops, Jewish learning experiences and individualized staff and mentor supervision. Each leader is charged with a specific mission within a defined pocket of students, and collectively they anchor the Jewish campus community.

OU-JLIC has also evolved and expanded the leadership base from an individual president, acting as the Orthodox campus representative, to a team that includes an intern, extern, president, gabbai, gabbai sefarim and chair people for specific ongoing programs such as Rosh Chodesh, Mishmar, Graduate Student Programming and Lunch & Learns. Each is tasked with specific programmatic and/or ritual responsibilities.

So, while some things on campus will always be the same (it will always be about the free food and an ongoing rivalry with USC), there is greater excitement today. The Millennials’ approach to social change is already being felt, enhancing and enriching the students on campus and the broader community.


Sharona Kaplan is a Torah educator for the OU’s Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at UCLA. She and her husband Aryeh are natives of Teaneck, NJ, who met during high school in NCSY! They have been working for the Orthodox Union ever since. They are the proud parents of four children.


Read more articles from Reunion here.