How to be frum at Queens College
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How to be frum at Queens College

Teaneck rabinnic couple guides OU campus outreach program

Eli Szafranski, Rabbi Benny Berlin, and Robin Tassler talk about issues that affect the lives of Orthodox students at Queens College.
Eli Szafranski, Rabbi Benny Berlin, and Robin Tassler talk about issues that affect the lives of Orthodox students at Queens College.

You grew up in modern Orthodox Teaneck. You went to one of the half dozen modern Orthodox elementary schools nearby, then to a yeshiva high school, and then to a gap year at an Israeli yeshiva.

Now you’re on campus. No, not at an Orthodox college like Yeshiva or Touro, but some place secular, like Queens College or Rutgers University, where there are non-kosher dining options, non-Jewish classmates, tests scheduled for Jewish holidays.

Toto, you’re not in Teaneck anymore.

What to do?

Well, if you’re at Queens College, or at Rutgers, or at Columbia — or at 18 other North American campuses — the Orthodox Union has you covered with its Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus.

The program — the JLIC as its participants call it, the OU-JLIC as the organization insists — is basically a copy of the classic Chabad house model: A rabbi and his wife (because these are Orthodox rabbis, they are all men and they are all married) set up shop on campus, offering students a pair of Orthodox role models away from home, teaching classes, studying one-one-one, answering urgent phone calls, engaging in long discussions, and spending Shabbat meals with the students.

Except that where Chabad reached out to all Jews, the OU-JLIC, which started in 2000, reaches out primarily to Orthodox Jews. And also unlike Chabad, the OU-JLIC couple generally works as part of Hillel, the on-campus Jewish organization.

At Queens College, the rabbinic couple is from Teaneck: Rabbi Benny and Sara Berlin. (Rabbi Michael Goldman, who also is on staff but in a different capacity, is from Englewood.)

“Benny and I grew up a block away from each other,” Ms. Berlin said. “We didn’t know each other at the time.”

They started dating when she was back from her year in Israel and he was at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school. “At our second date, I asked, ‘Do you want to be an OU-JLIC educator at Queens College?’” Rabbi Berlin said.

“This is something he had mentioned he was very passionate about,” Ms. Berlin said.

Before rabbinical school, Rabbi Berlin had gone to Lander College, a Queens-based division of Touro University. While he was there, he had roommates who studied at Queens College, and he learned about the OU-JLIC program from them. For four years, until last year, Rabbi Berlin was the rabbinic intern at Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue.

Ms. Berlin studied at Stern College of Yeshiva University, and then she earned a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University.

“It has always been a passion of ours to continue that Jewish education and Jewish environment — that we both experienced — to extend that post-high school, to give people that opportunity in a secular institution,” she said.

And while they both attended Orthodox colleges, they knew that the OU says that 79 percent of Orthodox high school graduates attend secular colleges.

“We know that part of a student’s success is not just the academics. It’s also fortifying their Jewish experience,” Rabbi Berlin said. “These are formative years for a college student. It’s important that they be involved in Jewish life in college.”

Life as a campus rabbi “is better than I imagined it would be,” he said. “We really enjoy it. We love having students to our house for Shabbos meals. Sara and I love giving over the classes.

“Queens College is a commuter campus, with 4,000 Jews,” he continued; a quarter of them are believed to be Orthodox. “How do we make it feel like a communal experience? This challenge is also an opportunity. We have to design the most dynamic programs possible, so people will want to come to the campus for that program. We’re vying for students’ time.

“We get questions all the time. These students primarily come from the Orthodox community. It’s their first time engaging with the secular world. Our job is fusing these worlds together, the world they grew up in and the secular world. It’s a big opportunity to be involved with students when they’re checking out things for the first time.

“A lot of kashrut questions come up — many are cooking for themselves for the first time.”

Rabbi Berlin said that among the challenges the students face are classes scheduled on Jewish holidays. “We wrote letters for students to professors, exempting them from their classes,” he said.

“Another challenge students could face is that college can be a daunting time socially for them. We want to make them feel they have a place they can call home. It can be a challenge for students to find their footing socially. Sara and I try to help them in that process.”

They run classes, social events, and a weekly Shabbat afternoon seudat shlishit meal that brings 65 people each time. “On our larger Shabbos we had 125 students,” Ms. Berlin said. “They didn’t actually fit into our house.”

Rabbi Berlin said he sees being a campus rabbi as a career. “I know that the average OU-JLIC couple remains on campus four or five years, but I think we have the potential to build something for many years to come.”

Robin Tassler is a Frisch graduate from Paramus who is entering her second year at Queens College. She said the majority of the school’s Orthodox population is from the Five Towns of Long Island, “but there are a few of us from New Jersey, who choose to live there and have our own community there.”

After college, she plans on going into Jewish education.

Ms. Tassler is on the Queens College OU-JLIC’s women’s leadership team. There is also a men’s leadership team, and a coed one. “I go to the coed events also,” she said.

The team plans some of the classes and guest speakers that OU-JLIC sponsors during the college’s club hour. Ms. Tassler also has led a class on occasion.

She said that Benny and Sara Berlin “are amazing. They welcome kids into their home all the time. They answer kashrut questions that come up, or personal questions. They’re a great tool to use on campus to get your priorities straight. I felt I was at my own home for Shabbos when I went to them.”

Eli Szafranski of Teaneck also is entering his second year at Queens College. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University’s MTA High School for Boys in Washington Heights.

“The Berlins have built an amazing Jewish community of people who are similar to me, who grew up modern Orthodox and went to a secular college,” he said. “They’ve been able to build a community that’s so accepting.”

Mr. Szafranski particularly likes the “beer and shiur” programs, where Rabbi Goldman “will bring food and talk about the parsha and different topics.

“Queens in general is a thriving Jewish community. There’s a shul across the street from the campus. The local community is welcoming to college students who come into their shul. There are many restaurants that are kosher. I love Teaneck, but Queens is pretty good.”

Rabbi Berlin wants you to know that if you’re going to be attending Queens College — or if you’re a high school student considering enrolling there — you should reach out to him or Sara, at ravbenny@qchillel.org and sberlin@qchillel.org.

“We hope you will join us for a Shabbat meal,” Rabbi Berlin said.

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