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Jewish Journal

Orthodox students fighting to keep presence at UCLA

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

February 24, 2011 | 4:41 pm

A program that is credited with creating a vibrant Orthodox community at UCLA needs to prove by the end of March that it can raise $80,000 annually to ensure its future on the Westwood campus.

The Orthodox Union (OU) has paid the salaries for two professionals who founded and have been running Shabbat programming, Torah study and daily services at UCLA for ten years, and now OU (http://www.ou.org/) says Los Angeles needs to put up a share of the cost, as other communities have done to support the program at 15 campuses across North America.

“The OU has already invested well over $1 million into the UCLA campus, and we’re not trying to close the program down. We are looking for partnership so that the program can continue long into the future,” said Ilan Haber, director of the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). “We want to see more indigenous support from the natural constituency of the community—whether that is Hillel, community funders, parents, alumni, or students – to carry a more significant portion of the cost of the program.”

The OU will continue to support JLIC (http://www.jliconline.org/index.php) with $80,000 year, roughly half the direct cost of the UCLA program, if the local community can commit to the other half – a determination OU will make at the end of March.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel (http://www.uclahillel.org) director, said he has no intention of letting JLIC disappear.

“I’m willing to mortgage Hillel in order to sustain JLIC,” Seidler-Feller said.

UCLA Hillel spends about $50,000 a year in programming and overhead costs for JLIC, but does not pay the salaries. Other Hillels around the country pitch in for the JLIC salaries, but Seidler-Feller said he has not been able to convince the Los Angeles Jewish community to support the program. He said he is looking for a donor to endow the JLIC position.

Meanwhile, Students have rallied around Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, who have run JLIC at UCLA for 7 years. Students have raised $30,000 so far through a website, www.keepourkaplans.org, and by soliciting parents, friends and community members.

All parties – the students, Hillel and OU – agree that the Kaplans have built a presence at UCLA that did not exist before.

The Kaplans have established a regular weekday morning and afternoon prayer services for the first time at UCLA Hillel, launched multiple opportunities for Torah study for Orthodox and non-Orthodox students, and created a Shabbat community that has Friday night and Shabbat morning services and meals every week, as well as holiday programs and services. Shabbat morning usually attracts around 30 to 40 students, and 150 students attend JLIC programs.

The Kaplan’s arrival coincided with the opening of the new Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, which also brought a reliable kosher meal program to campus for the first time – a necessity for attracting Orthodox students from inside and outside LA.

JLIC has benefited all students, not just the Orthodox, said Seidler-Feller, with its concrete programming, consistent presence and mostly with the spirit it brings.

“JLIC represents the possibility of a thriving Modern Orthodox community in a university setting, which is the primary lesson that Hillel is trying to transmit: You can be intensely Jewish and engage the world.”

Seidler-Feller said past efforts to get Orthodox support have not been successful, possibly because the community fears the pluralistic setting. But Seidler-Feller said he has seen Orthodox students maintain their values and identity while influencing the wider community. And, he points out, several Orthodox couples have met and married through JLIC.

He notes that the investment can pay off in the long run—not only can parents save tens of thousands of dollars on a local, high caliber public education, but 80 percent of UCLA graduates end up living within 20 miles of the school, a fact that could speak to parents eager to keep their college graduates on the West Coast.

“If these graduates stay, they can enrich the entire Los Angeles Jewish community,” Seidler-Feller said.

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