When Liora Shofet started UCLA four years ago, she wanted to get involved in the Jewish community. As a graduate of the Orthodox Bais Yaakov high school, she didn't feel comfortable with the Hillel crowd, but she didn't want college to be an experience limited to lecture halls.
"Most Hillel events I felt didn't apply to me," Shofet said. While she did find some camaraderie through working on Ha'Am, the online Jewish news magazine, "it still wasn't cohesive. People tried to make efforts, but it wasn't enough," she said.
Last year, things changed when Uri and Julie Goldstein came to town. The couple was hired specifically to target students like Shofet and her peers -- day school graduates who wanted more Torah study and social interaction with other Orthodox students. For their first gathering last year -- after Herculean efforts -- the Goldsteins found 10 students.
"It was a group of dispersed and random students," recalled Uri Goldstein, who is completing rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University. "Prior to our arrival, these students, who were mostly day school educated, would go to school and go home and go to school and go home. They were alienated from Hillel, and for the most part they didn't know each other."
This year the group has grown to about 40 students, having built up a community through informal and formal Judaic classes and study partnerships, Shabbatons and a Thursday night "parsha and pizza" group.
The Goldsteins are part of the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI), a program currently at seven U.S. campuses in which young couples are hired to create a community for the Orthodox students and learning opportunities for the larger Jewish community.
Founded by Rabbi Menachem Schrader, a rabbi in Efrat, Israel, the initiative is funded by the Orthodox Union, Hillel, the Avichai Foundation and Torah Mitziyon, a religious Zionist Kollel.
The arrival of JLI at UCLA is part of a concerted effort by Hillel to make UCLA an attractive option for yeshiva graduates, in anticipation of the opening of the kosher dining hall in the new Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life -- the first time UCLA can offer a kosher meal plan.
The details of the plan, set to begin in the winter quarter, are still being worked out, but will allow students to use their dorm meal credits at the Hillel kitchen. Faculty and community members will also be able to buy meals on a walk-in basis.
The new Hillel building also has a kosher cafe, along with ample space for classes, a beit midrash stocked with books and space to accommodate religious services of all denominations.
The hope is that a burgeoning Orthodox student community will eventually attract students from out of the area, who may also be drawn to the warm weather and UCLA's expansive campus.
Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation, who has worked with Hillel's Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller on shoring up the Orthodox community at UCLA, said it is in Los Angeles' best interest to stem the collegiate brain drain of Orthodox to the East.
"If students have a great experience here and find jobs and meet spouses here, it's more of an attraction for them to stay in the community and settle," Weil said.
Seidler-Feller also believes that "involvement from Orthodox students enhances the quality of the Hillel program, because it provides students with knowledgeable role models who are peers."
Hillel's efforts are being aided by other projects targeting UCLA students. The Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) has been at UCLA since 1996, targeting unaffiliated students. JAM's main outreach tools are heavily subsidized group trips to New York and Israel, where students are exposed to traditional Jews in the highest echelons of politics and finance to learn how traditional values can coexist with a worldly life. Many of the approximately 600 students who have gone on the trips come back energized to learn more about Judaism and observance, according to JAM.
Currently, JAM employs five people to study with UCLA students and to organize social events and Shabbat activities, according to Bracha Zaret, a JAM founder.
The organization runs a Friday night minyan with the Goldsteins. Over the past year, JAM has sent the couple students who were ready to move their study up a notch from the beginner's level.
This year, JAM and JLI have been joined by Torah Learning for Collegiates (TLC), a joint venture of Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) and the new Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel run by the Westwood Kehilla (LINK).
The targets of TLC are college students who are either day school graduates or who have been brought in through JAM or some other outreach program. Its program -- classes four nights a week -- is held off campus at YULA.
"The goal is to foster a learning environment and social environment so that students can continue to grow Jewishly and religiously throughout their years in college and have the infrastructure of teachers who can help them get through the critical issues that arise for anyone trying to balance ongoing personal development and a very demanding college education," said Gidon Shoshan, a LINK educational director.
While the Goldstein's at JLI have similar goals, their work is more focused on the campus as the center of students' lives. As part of Hillel, they also grapple with how to help students maintain their particular religious dedication, while interacting with the non-Orthodox Jewish community.
"The vision is unity," Julie Goldstein said. "There are all types of different Jews, and we have to learn from each other and have a symbiotic relationship based on a shared culture and an interest to learn more, where no matter what kind of Jew you are, we all want to be better Jews and to celebrate our Judaism together."
For more information on JLI ,call (310) 208-3081 ext 107; for JAM, call (323) 651-0177; and for LINK, call (310) 441-5024.