sharona kaplanbSharona Kaplan is in her twelfth year as a Torah educator for the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In this role, she teaches and mentors students while supporting an Orthodox Jewish infrastructure on campus. Sharona, a mother of five young children, serves as a mentor for the national network of OU-JLIC educators. Together with her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Sharona is working to expand OU-JLIC to additional campuses on the West Coast.

As told to Rachel Wizenfeld

My job offers the ultimate professional fulfillment. The Jewish ideal is to be a lifelong learner and to continuously be involved with things that nourish and mature your Jewish identity. A lot of women at my stage in life don’t have that luxury, and I’m so grateful to OU-JLIC for giving me that platform. I get to live in that blessed “gets-me-out-of-bed-every-morning” excited space; if I could have seen how this job was going to enrich my life, I would have come running in this direction.

Teaching and learning Torah is a huge part of what I do. It’s amazing to teach someone a text and experience an epiphany with her. In addition, mentoring young women and forging relationships with them is so gratifying. I work a lot with kallahs and newlyweds; helping people at these critical junctures of their lives is a true privilege. Recently I met with a kallah on a Friday afternoon—a challenging time to meet—but she was experiencing one of those “crisis” moments in her relationship. I was able to help calm her down and recalibrate, and she entered Shabbat in a new place, which was incredibly rewarding.

There’s a real geshmack (satisfaction) I get from introducing students to their next stage of sophisticated Jewish learning. Chavruta learning is qualitatively different from high school classroom learning. In a university setting, students who choose to study Judaism on their own are studying topics that interest them at a time that works for them. Sometimes when a student in high school asks a philosophical or theological question, the teacher deflects the question, maybe because she doesn’t want to veer off topic or she’s afraid she’s going to lose the rest of the class, but often those questions are critically important. When my husband and I arrived on campus, our motto was “any text, any time.” One girl actually bought me flowers after our first chavruta session—she finally had had a chance to explore a question that had remained unanswered throughout her yeshivah education. Together we unpacked and repacked the issue, and now she’s engaging this area of Judaism with a passion and richness that she didn’t have before. Another student was shaken after her first Judaic studies class on campus exposed her to ideas she had not encountered in yeshivah high school. Instead of beginning to question her twelve years of yeshivah education, she was able to turn to OU-JLIC to make sense of it.

My husband and I co-teach a weekly class at Hillel. At the beginning of each academic quarter we survey the students to determine the best time to meet. This quarter the responses were split; half of the respondents wanted one day, the other half a different day, so we decided to try offering the same class two days in a row to reach both populations. We called the second class “Instant Replay” and ended up having a pool of between twenty and twenty-five students for each class, which is a great turnout for a class offered in the middle of the school day. Students were saying, “We can’t believe that you would take another hour and teach the exact same thing again!” For us it was a no-brainer. But it shows that the students not only appreciate the content we teach them, they appreciate the time we invest in them. We want to work with them and escort them through college in a way that fits with their schedules, and they appreciate that.

On campus, students might not be able to easily identify other Jews—they’re often “undercover Jewish,” wearing a trendy skirt or baseball cap. But when a Jewish student is introduced to another Jewish student who is sharing a similar college experience, they’re naturally drawn to each other. Sometimes I’ll meet students who are best friends and they tell me that they actually met through OU-JLIC! In some ways, helping people make lifelong friends as they meet through our OU-JLIC community is just as rewarding as helping to make shidduchim. (To date, seventeen couples met through our program!)

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When it comes to juggling my various responsibilities, I try to be strategic: it’s about prioritization. Having my professional and personal lives bleed into each other can be a good thing for both sides, if done strategically. Because campus life is 24/7 instead of nine-to-five, I can plug in at different junctures. When my students need me, I can be there, and when my kids need me, I can be there too. My job also enriches my kids’ lives—last week my daughter was off from school and she came to a chaburah I was giving to female students. It enriches her to see my work and the students appreciate interacting with my kids. Shabbat is really great—work and family converge, and I try to take that time to be really present and to immerse in the moment. And when it comes to chagim like Simchat Torah or Shavuot, it’s fabulous—on campus we rock around the clock!  

sharona kaplan pull quote1My schedule is sustainable because there’s a lot of self-definition in the work. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of my schedule to constantly evaluate where changes need to be made. I strive to embrace the tiny pockets of time that unexpectedly pop up throughout the day.  If a student’s late to a chavruta session, she’s apologizing, but I just made my Google Express shopping order. If I have a car ride alone, I’ll make a “mazal tov” phone call or check in with a colleague. I can tell you what I’ll be doing from the morning until 9:00 in the evening in fifteen-minute increments.

Preparing for classes is manageable because we’ve been doing this for twelve years, so we have amassed a resource bank of shiurim and have a sense of what works. With the shiurim in place, it’s easier to inject the newness and personalize the messaging without starting from scratch.

While extreme intensity can’t be sustained indefinitely, the campus schedule is set up so there are spurts of intensity, where I dig deep and invest intensively, and then it’s spring break or summer vacation, and I can focus on other parts of my life.    

The schedule does get exhausting but it’s also exhilarating—there’s a real momentum. I imagine people in a desk job just zone out at a certain point, but for me there’s always something compelling that’s fueling me and giving me strength.

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It’s so valuable for college-aged women to see women who love and pursue advanced Torah learning. They need to see a space for them to become Jewish communal professionals so that they are encouraged in their personal Torah growth. If the most advanced opportunity they see is teaching a high school class, it can be hard to stay motivated to develop their Jewish learning in college.

Unfortunately, I find that there’s a real lack of female Torah educators in many communities. Many shul rebbetzins have other jobs and their focus is diffused. Hiring women as Torah educators, which is part of the brilliance of the OU-JLIC program, enables women to fully devote their time and energy to the community. 

Jewish learning and mentorship are my professional mandate. Naming that as my role is a real game changer and allows me to fully immerse myself in my job. I’ve found that to whatever extent I’m willing to go, doors keep opening and the “glass ceiling” keeps rising. Whether it’s teaching in the broader community or taking on new managerial roles, doors continue to open professionally.  

Rachel Wizenfeld is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor and is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Action.