Perhaps it’s the support and encouragement they receive from OU-JLIC educators Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan, perhaps they aren’t content being only twelfth on The Forward’s “Best Colleges For Orthodox Jews” list, perhaps it’s both; students at UCLA continue to push the limits of what is possible for their Jewish college community. Last semester it was an innovative meal app and this semester it’s a way to go from Paris to Sinai via L.A. connection at the speed of sound — all for the sake of Torah. That’s right, 13,324 miles in minutes!
Where did students get the inspiration from? It all began this past fall, when students struck up a conversation with UCLA Research Scientist in Atmospheric Science and a Professor of Mathematics, Dr. Mickael Chekroun, after he spoke at a JewQ session, one of the many ongoing programs run by the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC). Students throng to JewQ to grab lunch, hear student, faculty and guest speakers, and ask whatever Jewishly related questions are on their minds. Of course, the OU-JLIC educators are alway available to answer students more personal questions privately, but this gives the student community an opportunity to explore topics and issues of communal interest.
After meeting Dr. Chekroun, a Frenchman living and teaching at UCLA, a number of students mentioned it would be nice to have something to connect them to their homes and heritage — UCLA has a number of students that moved to the U.S. from France as young children or are currently visiting for a few years.
“Torah for Frenchies” is a unique opportunity for students who have a preference to speak French to join together to learn Torah and discuss relevant and timely topics in French; standing at Sinai, sitting in L.A, and transporting themselves to France all thought the words of Dr. Chekroun or occasionally his wife, Miriam. The program began as a series of informal conversations in the backyard of the Hillel with a handful of students, when Rabbi Kaplan stepped in and turned it into a weekly shiur accompanied by dinner. Thanks to the efforts of student co-leader Raphael Nacache, currently a Junior, who organizes the classes and informs students about it, the group has grown, and is averaging a dozen students including some Americans who want to learn French and find this to be a wonderful immersive experience.
If you think having a Math Professor and his wife teach a Torah class is crazy, you’d be surprised to know the is not the first time OU-JLIC West (with a presence at UCLA, Santa Monica College, L.A. Valley College, Pierce College, Western University and California State University, Northridge) has empowered professionals to teach college students. OU-JLIC started a part time program for the graduate student at Western University of Health Sciences this year, and the educators aren’t a Rabbinic couple — Drs. Rod Avraham Najibi and Daniella Orner Najibi are dentists! According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, co-director of OU-JLIC West, “being taught by individuals that are not Rabbis is a great example to the students that they can thrive in their professional lives and still become great Torah scholars.” In addition to answering students’ questions and supporting their personal and spiritual development, OU-JLIC educators like the Kaplans and Najibis host students for Shabbat meals and holiday programming, create social events, learn with students with partners and even prepare couples for marriage.