Jewish Journal

‘JAM’-packed Campus Outreach

by Rachel Brand

Posted on Feb. 27, 2003 at 7:00 pm

It's not unusual to see 60 students cramming into an nonairconditioned duplex on fraternity row on a Saturday night at UCLA -- unless those students happen to be surrounding a havdalah candle singing Hebrew songs.

But so it is on this warm winter Saturday night, as a crowd of Jewish students gather for sushi and havdalah at the home of Rabbi Benzion Klatzko. Affectionately referred to by students as "Rabbi K," with his energy and youthfulness, Klatzko, 34, could easily pass for a student if it weren't for the "Rabbi With Attitude" sign on his front door. Klatzko serves as one of the on-campus rabbi for JAM, the Jewish Awareness Movement at UCLA, an outreach organization that aims to help unaffiliated Jews "return to their roots," as Klatzko said.

With a population that is approximately 8 percent Jewish, UCLA houses many different Jewish groups on campus. Some, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Bruins for Israel, are political, and others, such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, tend to be more social or religious. 

 Recent years, however, have seen the coming of new organizations  -- those that are taking a more aggressive approach in instilling Judaism into students.  

"Our role is for people who don't know enough about Judaism to be looking, or have had a negative experience growing up," said Klatzko, who can often be found casually conversing with students on Bruin Walk.

On this crowded Saturday evening, Klatzko is comfortably milling around his home on the second floor of the building that he and his family share with JAM's other on-campus rabbi, Rabbi Eli Bloom. Mingling with students, he stops to talk to Sara Monroe, a sophomore who was turned on to the organization when she was approached by Klatzko while sitting at a table on campus and has been involved in the organization ever since. How did the rabbi guess that the blond, blue-eyed Monroe was Jewish?

"He asks everyone," she replied.

Many students find Klatko's and JAM's active, hands-on approach to Judaism appealing.

"The rabbis are really accessible to talk to about anything that is going on in your life," said sophomore Aaron Weinberg.

JAM was established in 1993 as a joint venture between UCLA Hillel and Westwood Kehilla, the neighborhood Orthodox synagogue, to serve the needs of Orthodox students on campus. It was funded by a three-year grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; when the grant ended in 1996, current JAM Directors Rabbi Moshe and Bracha Zaret took over the organization and transformed it into an outreach organization hoping to make students more religious. JAM is currently one of four of its kind that exist on campuses throughout the United States.

"We're focusing on Jews with no background at all. It's our expertise and it's where we saw the greatest need," Zaret told The Journal.

With a database of 2,000 students, JAM's events tend to be, well, jammed. The organization events include a weekly portion learning group and a service that matches a student with an Orthodox family for Shabbat dinner.

Its JAM's most popular programs are its winter and summer trips to New York and its summer trips to Israel, where participants interact and experience life within various Orthodox communities. "It breaks misconceptions that these people are cold and hard and ultra-religious," Zaret said. Approximately 600 students have participated in the highly subsidized trips over the past seven years.

Freshman Haggie Mazler went on the New York trip with some 50 students in December. The students visited the diamond exchange in Midtown Manhattan -- where many Chasidim work -- and went to Monsey, N.Y., a religious suburb in Rockland County.

 "The New York trip was about learning how Orthodox people live and how they study and how they survive in the real world," Mazler told The Journal. "Even if you disagree with what you see, you still learn so much and you have such an appreciation for Judaism,"  Haggie said.

Some students and educators disagree with what they see as JAM's monolithic approach.

Junior Tami Reiss praises JAM's educational work, but is critical of the organization's insularity. "Because Rabbi K doesn't think the Conservative and Reform movements work as well at keeping people within the faith, he doesn't expose students to them," she said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA said, "I often feel that there's a tension between the different approaches of two teachers. One teacher is saying, 'come to me, I have all the questions' and the other saying 'come to me, I have all the answers.' I tend to see Hillel as a place that says to students, 'come let's explore these questions together, but I can't promise you that at the end we will find the answer. All I know is that we will confront the problem with integrity.' The other approach would guarantee that there must be an answer, and that we will certainly find it."

Hillel, which has a global network of more than 500 regional centers, campus foundations and student organizations, caters to the approximately 2,500 Jewish students at UCLA.

"At Hillel, we want to give students an opportunity to experience the rich rhythms of Jewish life, so that they will be able to make an intelligent decision as to how they want to grow Jewishly and to what extent they want to be involved," Seidler-Feller said. He believes that students will go in a variety of different directions and "we have to legitimate and nurture the different paths that they choose to take."

Despite their different philosophies, Hillel and JAM do occasionally run programs together and their student participants often overlap. One such example includes a recent joint Hillel-JAM Shabbat dinner.

"JAM is for the student who won't feel fulfilled unless they are doing something uniquely Jewish," Zaret said.

Zaret and other JAM leaders view their approach as open-minded, noting that students are also exposed to Jews who are leaders in the secular community in the fields of finance, entertainment and politics.

"Where there are people that are reconnecting to their Judaism, even though it's through Conservative, or perhaps Reform, we -- in principle -- are delighted to expose students to such people, and in practice we have done it." (They recently had entertainment agent David Lonner as a speaker.)

"We're looking for people with a passion that have their foot in both worlds -- both the Jewish world and the secular world, whether it is politics, finance, or entertainment," Zaret said. "Generally speaking, we notice that the people that are most passionate about their reconnecting to Judaism happen to be within the Orthodox community."

According to Rabbi David Refson, dean of Neve Yerushalayim College in Jerusalem, compared to other campus outreach organizations around the country, JAM at UCLA has one of the highest percentage of students becoming shomer Shabbat.

Ultimately, Zaret hopes that the students will retain some aspect of what they are exposed to through JAM. "When you're dealing with hundreds and hundreds of students over time, the reality is that the majority doesn't become Orthodox," Zaret said. "But, the overwhelming majority develops a much stronger connection to their Jewish roots, and perhaps it will mean not intermarrying and perhaps it will mean keeping the Sabbath." 

To register for JAM's first spring New York trip, March 22-30, contact Rabbi Benzion Klatzko at sagewannabe@aol.com  or at (310) 209-4934. p> Tracker Pixel for Entry


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