By Michael Orbach
Ten years is a lifetime in college, but Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan aren’t going anywhere. The Kaplans, the longest-serving couple at the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), have been at University of California, Los Angeles, for a decade and their achievement was celebrated at the OU West Coast Annual Awards Banquet this past June.
“Someone once told me that staying in college keeps you sharp—intellectually, socially and physically—and we’re trying to buy into that theory,” laughs Sharona.
The Kaplans, who arrived back in 2004, are part of the Orthodox Union’s JLIC program. Founded in 2001, the program places Orthodox couples on secular college campuses to help Orthodox students navigate college life while balancing their Jewish commitments.
Aryeh had been studying for semichah at Yeshiva University and Sharona had just received her degree in social work when they became the new JLIC couple at UCLA, which has a relatively large Jewish population. The first thing the Kaplans did when they got to UCLA was institute Shabbat and holiday lunches, which allowed them to build a core group of dedicated college students.
The importance of that small group was something the couple had learned during their time with New Jersey NCSY, where they first met. “We had a solid group of friends and we were doing worthwhile things,” Sharona explains. “It shaped us. I credit NCSY and its summer programs. They were a part of our lives and shaped our career choices. They invested in us and empowered us.”
From Shabbat meals, the couple gradually expanded into other programming, including a dizzying array of lectures and activities for students on campus. (Their most popular activity is still “Pizza and Parsha,” which brings in speakers from the larger L.A. Jewish community.) Along the way, Sharona and Aryeh witnessed their first students graduate and marry and a new crop of students take their place.
The Kaplans have four children: Shalva, nine; Barak, seven; Rivky, five and Yakir, four.
“[The Kaplans] capture the quintessence of what the program is about, with their passion, sincerity, overwhelming warmth and concern for the students and substantive approach to Jewish ideas and values,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, national director of JLIC.
“In the Modern Orthodox community, the mantra is ‘I hope they survive’ secular college,” explains Aryeh. “We’re trying to change that. It’s not about surviving; it’s about thriving.”
Michael Orbach is a staff writer at the OU.
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