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YU aims for ‘cross-pollination’ between its students and Israel

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Students from YU’s Operation Healthcare service learning initiative play with special- needs children at a park. Avi Rosenbaum of Teaneck is on the right. Photo courtesy Yeshiva University

Never in its 80-year history has Yeshiva University — America’s flagship centrist Orthodox academic institution — expended more resources forging bonds between its students and their Israeli counterparts.

North Jersey natives consistently participate in an ever-expanding array of exchange, advocacy, and service programs in Israel. This winter alone, select students from YU high schools (see accompanying story) and undergrads from the university’s Yeshiva and Stern colleges traveled to Israel on four different programs.

The trend began not just because more than 3,000 YU alumni now live in Israel, or because 800 post-high-school North Americans are studying in independent Israeli yeshivas earning credit as YU undergraduates.

University President Richard M. Joel set the stage for the current emphasis in his 2003 installation address: “The land of Israel and the state of Israel are central to the future of the Jewish people, and have always been central to the reality of the Yeshiva University community,” he said. “Let’s make YU the address in New York for Israel events and Israel conversations.”

To help realize this goal, Joel initiated the founding of the university’s Center for the Jewish Future in 2005 and its Center for Israel Studies in 2007. “I am especially pleased with the large number of students who have decided to take advantage of the innovative Israel missions run by the Center for the Jewish Future,” he said last week.

Bergen County residents were among 35 college students in the CJF’s Project Connect last January, where they interacted with Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to understand the challenges of their absorption. And they were among nearly two dozen volunteer counselors in CJF’s Counterpoint Israel summer camps for low-income children.

This winter, 71 undergraduates — including nine from Teaneck, Fair Lawn, and Passaic — are taking part in CJF winter-break missions in Israel.

Shabbat 2010 explores the complex relationship between Sabbath observance and technology at Israeli hospitals and army bases, as well as the societal tensions the official day of rest causes in a multicultural democracy. Through Operation Healthcare, pre-medical and political science majors are comparing and contrasting the health-care systems of the United States and Israel. Each program includes service components.

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YU students from the Shabbat 2010 men’s group teach Hilchot Shabbat to sixth- and seventh- graders from Gush Etzion. Among them are Ari Selevan, top and Yaakov Taubes, both of Teaneck.

Additionally, 12 undergraduate fellows from the university’s QUEST student leadership program spent a week in the schools and hothouses of former Gush Katif (Gaza) residents now living in the new Negev desert community of Halutza. Sponsored in partnership with the Jewish National Fund, this mission required the group to raise $20,000 toward the construction of houses and public buildings there.

“The primary goal of these and all CJF programs is to inspire our students to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large,” said CJF Dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander. The center’s mandate is to “renew and refresh, strengthen and support, and inspire and energize” Jewish communities in North America and around the world.

Comparing specific elements of American and Israeli culture — both religious and secular — is one of the tools CJF uses to raise participants’ awareness of the differences between the two societies, reexamine their values, and ponder their potential to make a positive impact.

The Shabbat 2010 mission, for example, was planned to include Sabbath experiences in Yemenite and chasidic settings, as well as dialogues with Israelis who do not observe the laws of Shabbat.

“Shabbos in the diaspora is a bifurcated experience, not a societal experience as it is in Israel,” said Brander, a Teaneck resident. “But it is also a societal challenge.”

As a result of the mission, he said, “maybe some of the students will make aliyah and create a Shabbos experience for those not yet connected.”

However, the overall aim of such programs is “cross-pollination” rather than aliyah. “We hope the students will internalize these experiences and begin shaping the communal landscape immediately upon their return by educating others about their newfound understandings,” said Brander. “There is a healthy spiritual viral effect to the whole endeavor — for the college students and the high school students as well.”

JNF Campus Programs Manager Rebecca Kahn, a Teaneck native, said the QUEST mission connected rising American Orthodox leaders with JNF’s work in Israel. Last January, she coordinated a similar mission for 120 mostly Conservative college students and young professionals — including six North Jersey residents — who tackled beautification projects in southern development towns.

“Our partnership with Yeshiva University has presented a unique opportunity to work with an exceptional group of students who are already committed to becoming leaders in the Jewish community,” Kahn said. This year’s group included Michelle Grundman of Fair Lawn and Sarit Ben-David of Teaneck.

Grundman said the trip opened her eyes to the possibility of assisting communities far from home, and specifically those in Israel that are outside the better-known Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. “You see how leaders can bring so much change and growth,” she said.

CJF projects on the drawing board include placing rabbinical interns with local Israeli rabbis to gauge the potential for careers in Israel and further expansion of the Counterpoint Israel summer camps for disadvantaged children. These programs are costly, Brander acknowledged.

“YU is willing to invest in a partnership with Israel, because we want it to be strong and continue to grow,” said Brander. “We are blessed with wonderful visionary partners, Repair the World and the Jim Joseph Foundation, who understand that the greatest incubator to inspire our students is Israel, where people are leading holistic leadership lives affecting Jewish society around the world.”

 
 

YU aims to help singles connect

Singles in search of a mate should take advantage of multiple avenues and media, advises Efrat Sobolofsky, who spearheads a social networking group for Jewish singles.

“You can sign up on several Websites, go to a variety of singles events, and try more than one matchmaker,” said the rebbetzin. (Her husband, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, is rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and religious leader of Cong. Ohr HaTorah in Bergenfield.) “One never knows where you will meet someone.”

Sobolofsky, who holds a doctorate in social work, is the director of YUConnects, a Center for the Jewish Future initiative devoted to creating matchmaking opportunities for Orthodox Jewish singles.

The group aims to help YU singles and alumni meet through its Website and events such as barbecues, bowling, chesed projects, and lectures.

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Game-playing is a way to break the ice at a YUConnects event.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the CJF, said the program is creating healthy social interactions and appropriate places where young men and women can meet. “When we send 1,000 students a year on chesed and service-learning programs, while its goal is to enable them to actualize their capacity as change agents within the world, often such like-minded students find their soul-mates on these programs,” he said.

Brander added that YUConnects has succeeded in helping to launch a network around the world of informal “connectors,” trained volunteers who function like matchmakers, “and changing the paradigm of how dating happens.”

Brander said he hopes the program will eventually help arm singles with the tools for creating stronger relationships. “We want to set a new prototype for how people should date,” he said. “Dating shouldn’t come with a forensic checklist. People are not hiring a spouse, they are looking for a soul-mate. What is wrong if someone you trust suggests going out with a young lady or young man to just try it? This is not like ordering a latte at Starbucks, or picking music for your iPod; people cannot be customized. I can understand the need to be on the same page, but too often, people are looking to be on the same line.”

As for whether the initiative reinforces negative stereotypes about YU students being overly concerned with dating, Brander said YUConnects offers relief from dating pressure. “It leaves them free to focus on their academics, and when they are ready, they know they can turn to YUConnects,” he said.

The program was launched after Sobolofsky and other communal leaders approached YU President Richard Joel several years ago suggesting that the university help generate more healthy opportunities for young men and women to meet.

YUConnects filled an important need, said Sobolofsky. “As people leave structured environments or places where they can meet other suitable people, it’s essential to help them network with other Jewish singles,” she pointed out.

The YUConnects Website is powered by SawYouAtSinai (SYAS), the Jewish matchmaking online service. To protect participants’ confidentiality, members are not permitted to surf through all the profiles. Instead, members select their connectors to conduct searches and propose matches for them, which follows the model of SYAS, said Sobolofsky.

Many of the connectors attend YUConnects events and become acquainted with participants so they can comfortably introduce them to the most appropriate participants. Connectors also helps people at events sort through the information and meet others who share common values, she said.

But the program doesn’t stop there: It also offers workshops on dating and relationship-building, and can even refer individuals or couples to relationship-building specialists, she said.

In the past three years since the inception of YUConnects, 42 couples have become engaged through the program, she said.

One success story was Yeshiva College’s own student council president, Shloimie Zeffren, a business major, who credits YUConnects in part for his recent engagement. “One of the connectors at YUConnects was very helpful in making it happen,” he said, declining to divulge more details. He added that he’s not the only one who has enjoyed the fruits of YUConnect’s labors. One of his friends also is getting married to someone he met through the organization.

The events are not for everyone. Some students appreciate the opportunity to meet others and consider it a part of their educational experience, others may not be comfortable attending co-ed events, and others may not be ready to date altogether during college, Sobolofsky said.

The YUConnects model is ideal, she continued, because it meets the needs of a broad range of groups within the YU community. “If people want to go out and meet people, we have events to help people meet,” she said. But if students are too busy studying to attend events, or if a young man is busy learning in the beis medrash or a young woman doesn’t feel comfortable putting herself out there, they can be set up through the Website, she said.

Despite all the successes, challenges remain. Among them, said Sobolofsky, is that a stigma is associated with what are considered “singles events.” The other obstacle is the male-female ratio. Of the nearly 900 members in YUConnects, the majority are women.

Sobolofsky notes that such statistics are common among many dating venues because of a hesitation among men to participate. “We’re working on changing that,” she said.

“As the program and the multiple venues demonstrate success, the numbers of participants has been increasing. Success breeds success.”

 
 

Rabbi Daniel Feldman co-edits new YU anthology on weekly

Teaneck native Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman cites two major reasons why many of the contributors to Yeshiva University’s new collection of original essays on the weekly Torah portions, “Mitokh Ha-Ohel,” are North Jerseyites.

“We have a thriving, growing, and intellectually committed Modern Orthodox community with tremendous resources, espousing the values of Yeshiva University,” he told The Jewish Standard. “And pragmatically speaking, North Jersey is located very close to YU [in Washington Heights]. So it’s a natural fit both philosophically and geographically.”

Feldman, co-editor of the 518-page volume along with Stuart W. Halpern, is the spiritual leader of Cong. Etz Chaim, one of Teaneck’s newer synagogues. In addition to teaching Talmud and Jewish studies at YU’s Stone Beit Midrash Program and directing rabbinic research at its Center for the Jewish Future, Feldman is an author in his own right. His latest book, “Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul” (Yeshiva University Press, 2009), was the prototype for the university’s foray into popular publications.

About two years ago, Feldman accepted the task of managing this project for YU, the flagship academic center of Modern — or centrist — Orthodoxy. “I feel great value in pursuing the goal of disseminating YU Torah to a wider reading public, an area in which the university has always had an interest,” he said.

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More than a dozen North Jersey scholars and rabbis contributed to Yeshiva University’s new anthology.

A call for contributors to “Mitokh Ha-Ohel” (literally “within the tent”) brought so many worthy replies that Feldman and Halpern plan a second volume to accommodate those who had to be left out of the first. They have not yet decided if the sequel will cover the same material — the Five Books of Moses — or the weekly and holiday haftarot from the books of the Prophets.

“We wanted a balance between instructors in different departments and disciplines, as well as administrators,” Feldman explained. Released Oct. 1 by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, the anthology features essays written from a range of approaches, including textual analysis, homiletic exposition, halachic (Jewish law) analysis, and academic exploration. The essays were by scholars from each of the university’s undergraduate and graduate schools.

“At Yeshiva University, we aspire to emulate the dwellings and philosophies of our forefathers by creating our own tent through our ideology of Torah Umadda, the marriage of Torah and secular knowledge,” said YU President Richard Joel. “This truly unique volume showcases the breadth and depth of the ‘tent’ ... and serves as a physical embodiment of Yeshiva University’s passion for seeking nuanced wisdom through Torah from multiple sources, and sharing that wisdom with the world.”

Among the 56 contributors are more than a dozen from North Jersey aside from Feldman: Prof. Nechama Price and Rabbis Yaakov Neuburger and Zvi Sobolofsky of Bergenfield; Rabbis Shmuel Goldin and Menachem Genack of Englewood; Rabbis Elchanan Adler and Yonason Sacks of Passaic; and Rabbis Mark Gottlieb, Kenneth Brander, Michael Taubes, and Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck. Additional contributors have ties to North Jersey, such as Riverdale resident Shira Weiss, assistant principal at The Frisch School in Paramus.

Two of these local scholars were involved in the next YU Press publication due out at the end of the year, the first in a planned series on Jewish law. This inaugural volume, written by Sobolofsky with a section by Neuburger, examines the laws of family purity.

“All our books will have a primary author as well as sections from other YU authorities on the particular topic,” said Feldman, who has also overseen the publication of several Hebrew volumes and works closely with the recently inaugurated press of the Orthodox Union headed by Genack. “We have a wealth of talents, skills, and knowledge among our faculty in many fields.”

 
 
 
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