The sound of excited three-year-old confabulation came from behind the door of the second-story Jewish Awareness Movement apartment before it opened to reveal Elana Shushan, wearing a bright smile and a brightly colored orange turban. The preschooler was Tsofia, who followed Elana to the couch and remained there for the duration of our interview. Nachman Noam, 9, and Israel (pronounced as in Spanish but with uvular trill), 7, were blending up a purple smoothie in the kitchen, and Adelle, 5, wandered in to see the action towards the end. The kids all chattered in a mixture of Hebrew and English. During our interview, Elana’s father and a friend dropped by to say hi.
The Shushans joined JAM at UCLA at the beginning of the year, after the departure of the Rupp family; Elana serves as the in-house director. Prior to UCLA, she and her husband, Rabbi Yaacov, lived in Israel, where they returned after serving as the JAM couple at UC Santa Barbara. Elana is originally from Minnesota but made multiple trips to Los Angeles, eventually moving here. After moving several more times between Israel and the US, she studied natural healing at Santa Monica College and earned an associate’s degree in the field. She then met her husband in Israel and proposed to him after three dates.
Currently, Elana manages JAM operations and runs an unsecured loan business, matching up clients and loaners. Although the business is not directly related to Judaism or spiritual matters, she enjoys the mental work and the opportunity to find Divine assistance in every transaction. Rabbi Yaacov operates his own business as well, away from the campus. They have found their experience at UCLA to be challenging, yet rewarding, as they adjust to the “busy school” climate, which Elana described as different from UCSB’s “laid back, ready-to-chill” atmosphere. But she believes that speaking to students from the heart will have the greatest impact, and holds high hopes for UCLA after making close friends at UCSB. “I’ve met some amazing guys and girls here.”
JAM, which is based in LA and services UCLA, UCSB and UC San Diego, describes itself as an organization dedicated to “provid[ing] a framework for young Jews to meet each other, be inspired about their Judaism, and explore their heritage.” Along these lines, the Shushans have continued the Tuesday evening Maimonides learning program, which grants students who participate in Jewish learning sessions a monetary award and opportunity to travel to Israel. They also plan to maintain the regular challah baking sessions and festive Shabbat meals, interspersed with innovative programming such as upcoming comedy night.
Don’t they want to revamp Jewish life at UCLA? I asked.
“I would love to revamp Jewish life [here]!” Elana replied, laughing. But she sees her role as JAM director to be more of a “big sister” or mentor to students looking for “a casual way to tap out of everything in a homey, wholesome environment…and Jewish outlet.” During a period of personal growth and exploration such as college, she believes it is important for students to be able to talk to someone from outside their circle of friends who can be a listening ear and remain an impartial sounding board. “College is amazing. But still, you’re coming out of the nest, discovering life through your own eyes,” she said. As such, although she wants JAM to be a place of enjoyment and fun, her goal is for it to be more of a safe space for students to feel welcome and comfortable.
Elana hopes to share her Jewish experience with students. She explained that what attracted her to observant Judaism, in addition to the profound philosophy she enjoys learning, was the emphasis on the personal happiness she found from adopting the lifestyle. The Shushans identify with the Breslov stream of Chasidic Judaism, which has its roots in a small Ukrainian village, and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, whose adherents strive for a close, personal, and joyous relationship with God. They put on music and have dance parties daily—or at least try to—because “at the end of the day, no matter what happened…we should all go home, put our head on the pillow, and think: Today was a good day.”
The Shushans are available to meet and learn with students. They can be reached via Facebook, email ([email protected]), or phone at (310) 926-2876.