Growing up, I belonged to a synagogue with two rabbis — one senior rabbi and one associate rabbi. I was close with one of them, but mainly because we studied together in the weeks leading up to my bat mitzvah. At UCLA, there are six rabbis — one at Chabad, two at the Jewish Awareness Movement, and three at Hillel (plus one rabbinic intern and four rebbetzins who are always ready to meet with students). The number of Jewish learning opportunities available to students at UCLA is dizzying, and almost impossible to take complete advantage of.
On any given day, there are at least three rabbis (or Hillel staff members) sitting on Kerckhoff patio — learning the parsha over pizza, sipping coffee and discussing life after college, or just chewing the fat. The Jewish Bruin market is clearly saturated, yet each educator manages to draw a crowd of students around him or her. When I was a freshman entering college, I expected to seek out Jewish opportunities — I did not expect them to seek me out, eagerly invite me over to their houses, and stuff me full of delicious food (and knowledge).
Now as a senior, making my nostalgic last rounds, I am able to reflect upon the multitude of experiences I have been exposed to, and to wonder about the lives of the individuals who had given me so much. Who are these men and women of UCLA, who dedicate themselves to serving the students spiritually, intellectually, and physically? What exactly is a campus rabbi/rebbetzin’s role, and how did it develop? I endeavored to find out.
I sat down with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, in his library-office. Judging by the unshelved books that lay in uneven stacks on the floor, chairs, and the large oval table in the center of the room, one would assume (correctly) that Rabbi Chaim is a learned man. For nearly the past 40 years, Rabbi Chaim has worked at Hillel at UCLA, watching the students and institution transform drastically before his eyes.
Two years before moving to California in 1975 to join the Hillel staff at UCLA, Rabbi Chaim began as the director of Hillel for Ohio State University without ever having so much as entered a Hillel building. But he was drawn, he remembered, by the idea that Hillel was a space for all Jews to come together, regardless of religious observance.
“I was looking for an environment where I could be a Jewish rabbi, not just an Orthodox rabbi,” Rabbi Chaim recalled, gesturing with his arms for emphasis.
Leaning forward in his chair, Rabbi Chaim relayed the history of Jewish organizations on college campuses, beginning in the early twentieth-century, when many universities implemented quotas for Jewish students. In order to formally fill the void of Jewish learning at institutions ill equipped to embrace Jews, let alone Jewish academic subjects, B’nai B’rith founded Hillel at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1924.
Envisioned as an organization to enrich Jewish student life, Hillel focused mainly on creating an intellectual environment where Judaism could flourish. “In all honesty,” Rabbi Chaim reflected, “we didn’t reach as many students as we’re reaching today. But I think we were successful and Hillel was well known — we programmed, and we brought all the major speakers of the time.”
According to the Hillel International website, the shift occurred in 1988, when “B’nai B’rith hire[d] Richard M. Joel, a 37-year-old attorney and Yeshiva University dean, to revitalize Hillel.” Instead of Hillel centering on rabbis, the students took on responsibilities and staff were hired to help promote student life.
Pausing to blow bubbles from a small vile on his desk, Rabbi Chaim is momentarily absorbed. He reflected thoughtfully, “My personal mission is to provide opportunities for young Jews to connect to Judaism.”
Aside from Rabbi Chaim, Hillel also partners with Sharona and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan from the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus to provide support for Modern Orthodox students. The duo believe that they have the most “optimal slice of the rabbinate. While Rabbis typically chose between classroom or pulpit, JLIC is the best of both. It’s the best of education — where every student we teach is interested, bright and participates voluntarily, without the pressure of a curriculum or tests alongside the best of pulpit — with all of the beauty of communal experiences and shared life cycle celebrations.”
In addition to the Kaplans, Hillel boasts another rabbi, Aaron Lerner, who is the Simha and Sara Lainer Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA. Rabbi Lerner shared that the most rewarding aspect of being a campus rabbi is “when a student who has been involved with Hillel decides to literally do something different with their life because they have been affected by Jewish values and conversation with Hillel student leaders and staff. Last year, a former intern decided to teach inner-city kids instead of working at a brokerage. Others make Aliyah or start clinics in Africa.”
New to the scene is Hillel’s rabbinic intern Kerry Chaplin, who leads Hillel’s weekly Bruins B’Yachad egalitarian prayer service on Friday nights. “My guiding philosophy in working with students and in life is curiosity,” Chaplin said. “I believe God is curious, and as we are striving to be holy as God is holy, I practice curiosity to reveal more of God in the world.”
Together, Rabbi Chaim, Sharona and Rabbi Kaplan, Rabbi Lerner, and Chaplin form the spiritual backbone of Hillel at UCLA. Although their institutions are not as old or well endowed, Chabad and JAM rabbis are working toward the same end as is the powerhouse on Hilgard.
Elisa and Rabbi Dovid Gurevich have been a Chabad on campus family for the last nine years. Along with their six children, the Gureviches invite students into their home each week for learning, cooking, conversation, and anything else a student away from home might need. “You know there’s a saying that you’re always happiest when you’re helping others,” Elisa relayed, bouncing baby Yossi on her hip. “So I think the ability to give is the most tremendous thing we gain from living here. And teaching our kids to give and to have ahavas yisroel (love among the Jewish people) is the most important thing. To see a Jew in need and see what we would provide is important. We’re not in it for ourselves.”
Rabbi Dovid and Elisa measure Chabad’s success based on the quality of their interactions. “It’s all about the kinds of questions people ask,” Rabbi Dovid said emphatically. The Gureviches encourage all levels of questioning — especially when students do not agree, upholding that by discussion and argument is the ideal vessel for learning.
By and large, the philosophy of Chabad on campus is categorized as shliach, meaning messenger or ambassador. Chabad couples have been sent out or inspired by the teachings of the Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to provide for the needs of the Jewish people, no matter what they may be. Rabbi Dovid cites providing students with everything from mezuzot to toilet plungers as evidence.
In contrast, the philosophy that guides JAM is kiruv, or “bringing close,” meaning that JAM seeks to bring Jews closer to the heart of Judaism: Orthodoxy. JAM was originally funded buy the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which granted money to the Westwood Kehilla and Hillel to run the program. “When the grant ran out, we took over JAM and inherited the name” and turned it into the program it is today, remembered Bracha Zaret, who spearheaded the project along with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Zaret. JAM is now an official student organization at six colleges in southern California.
Julie and Rabbi Jacob Rupp, UCLA’s resident JAM couple, have been working for JAM for the past seven years, and even met through JAM when they were both in college at UCSD. The two became Orthodox together, and returned to JAM to share their experience. “I went to Yeshiva after college,” Rabbi Rupp relayed, taking a sip of water and relaxing in his chair. “And I decided that I wanted to work in the college outreach world because I had just come from it, and I felt that I had a natural understanding for college culture.”
Rabbi Rupp takes his job very personally. “The role of being a rabbi has always been difficult business. You’re not just dealing with your own inclination, but with your students’ evil inclinations as well. To be a good rabbi, you have to care a great deal, and it’s hard not to take people’s own shortcomings personally.”
For these reasons, the role of campus rabbi is incredibly taxing, and there can be a tremendous turnaround, as Rabbi Rupp notes. Therefore, the Zarets are filling in as the second JAM family this year, spending Shabbat at UCLA and welcoming students into their home. Living on frat row and being a JAM rabbi comes with its own set of unique challenges, such as navigating the intoxicated students, loud music, and constant party atmosphere. But it is worth it, Rabbi Rupp upholds, in order to be able to invite students into his home, which is conveniently located in the thicket of student life.
No matter which organization or rabbi students get involved with, they can be assured that they will receive personal attention and guidance. “We thrive on individual relationships,” Rabbi Gurevich reiterated. “If you’re Jewish and at UCLA, there is so much we have to offer.”