New program aims to foster stronger sense of community,
along with deepened connection to Israel and Torah learning
The inauguration of the Hamercaz Queens College program, designed to strengthen Jewish life on campus, took place Monday in the college’s Student Union Building. A partnership between Queens College Hillel and OU-JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus), Hamercaz aims to provide Queens College’s thousands of Jewish students with a stronger sense of community, along with a deepened connection to Israel and Torah learning.
In his introductory remarks, Uri Cohen, the Executive Director of Queens College Hillel, noted that with 4,000 Jewish students on campus, Queens College boasts one of the largest Jewish student populations in the country. A significant percentage of those students are Orthodox as well.
“The population is huge, and the potential impact is huge,” Cohen said. He also outlined the “three pillars” of the Hamercaz program, which are Torah learning, community building, and Israel engagement.
In a session on Hamercaz’s Israel Engagement program, Jenna Citron, the Assistant Director of Hillel of Queens College, said that BDS and anti-Israel activity have not been a problem on campus.
“We work really hard at making sure it’s not here,” she explained. “BDS often comes through student government. That’s how this often gets on campus.”
Citron attributed the absence of anti-Israel activity to Hillel of Queens College’s close relationships with the student government, and the David Project, a non-profit that creates pro-Israel advocacy on college campuses.
In his keynote speech, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills also emphasized the importance of Hamercaz in strengthening the connection of young Modern Orthodox Jews to their heritage, religious observance, and appreciation for Israel. Such a program, Rabbi Schonfeld said, has been “long, long overdue.”
“I’ve been saying for a number of years that there has been a certain malaise in the Modern Orthodox community,” Rabbi Schonfeld said. “The interests of the young students today, in associating with things Jewish, is very much on the wane.”
While acknowledging that many Jewish students still attend synagogue services, Rabbi Schonfeld believes there is a lack of commitment when it comes to community activism among young Orthodox Jews on behalf of Israel. Many rabbis he has spoken with have been in agreement with him on this point, he added. When it comes to rallies supporting Israel and providing education on Yom HaShoah and other Jewish causes, Rabbi Schonfeld said, the younger crowd is “simply not there.”
“I think a lot of this is because there was a lack of true commitment to Torah studies as they were going through their formative years,” he elaborated.
The remedy for this indifference, Rabbi Schonfeld stated, is an increase of Torah study among Modern Orthodox youth.
“Without Torah study, there really can’t be a serious connection [to Judaism].” Rabbi Schonfeld also cited Pew studies showing that non-Orthodox communities are “disappearing” as a result of a severely limited connection to Israel and Torah.
To avoid this fate, Rabbi Schonfeld said it is essential to “make sure the Orthodox community is strengthened.”
In connection with the problem of indifference among Orthodox youth, Rabbi Schonfeld cited an article published in the Times of Israel this month by Eitan Gross, a Modern Orthodox teenager. In the piece, Gross argues that Modern Orthodoxy has become too permeated by secular culture, to the point that Orthodox youth are becoming disaffected and less knowledgeable regarding Judaism and halachah (Jewish law), at times leaving the fold altogether.
Agreeing with Gross’s assessment, which he described as a “mea culpa for the Modern Orthodox community,” Rabbi Schonfeld said he is “delighted to see that there will be an Israeli segment to this [Hamercaz] program” so that Orthodox students will learn more about Israel.
“There is a disconnect in the Modern Orthodox world today,” Rabbi Schonfeld stated. “To go back to the roots of chinuch (education), we have to reevaluate what we are doing [when it comes to] education.”
Speaking at the event, Congressman Rory Lancman also weighed in.
“You never have to worry about the Modern Orthodox community when it comes to Israel, when it comes to fighting for the Jewish people,” Lancman said. “The Modern Orthodox community is unique among the religious community in its engagement with the outside world. It’s very important that the thousands of Orthodox students at Queens College develop their Orthodoxy to the fullest…if they can bring that religious knowledge and special education to that endeavor [of becoming community activists and leaders], that is a wonderful, wonderful mitzvah, and it will be a great, great blessing.”
By Menachem Rephun