Orthodox Rhodes Scholar Excelled In Classroom But Found Spiritual Enrichment In Orthodox Union Program
Latest update: July 2nd, 2012
In September 2008, Miriam Rosenbaum, a freshman from New York City, arrived at Princeton University to begin her four years of undergraduate education on the Ivy League campus. At the same time, Rabbi David and Sara Wolkenfeld arrived on campus to assume the positions of Torah Educators in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program at Princeton.
Miriam came from Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, N.J., followed by a year of seminary study at the Michlalah College for Girls in Jerusalem. Rabbi Wolkenfeld was a graduate of Harvard, Sara an alumna of the University of Pennsylvania. Miriam had applied to Princeton as an early decision student and was accepted. Rabbi David and Sara were chosen for their positions because of their secular educational backgrounds (both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania also have JLIC programs), deep commitment to Jewish learning, and their perceived ability to serve as role models for Princeton’s Orthodox students.
JLIC, a joint initiative of the OU and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is found on 15 campuses across the United States and in Canada and tends to the spiritual and personal needs of the increasing number of yeshiva graduates who have chosen to attend secular colleges.
Just before Thanksgiving this year, Miriam became a sensation in the Orthodox world with the announcement that she had won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to spend the next two years studying at Oxford, becoming the first Orthodox woman to be so honored. (Her interview with The Jewish Press appeared in the Dec. 2 issue.)
When she flies across the pond, she will go to Oxford influenced not only by her academic studies, but by her four years participating with the Wolkenfelds in Princeton JLIC.
“The Wolkenfelds have always been there for me,” she said. “They are like a mother and father away from home in that they are concerned not only with the Jewish aspect of my education but with the personal aspect as well. If I have a rough day I can have a cup of coffee with them, go to their house, play with their children. They are wonderful people. They work to strengthen the social bonds in the community besides their shiurim, chavrutas and other Jewish studies.
On the Princeton page on the JLIC website (www.jliconline.org) Miriam has written, “JLIC makes Princeton into a home for me. On a rather anonymous college campus, it is wonderful to have JLIC care for both my spiritual and personal well-being…”
“This is our fourth year serving the Jewish community at Princeton as JLIC educators, so we have been privileged to be a part of Miriam’s college career from the very beginning,” said Sara Wolkenfeld. “Through her participation in shiurim and other communal events, her own personal religious observance, and her one-on-one learning, Miriam has been a central figure in our community. In particular, Miriam’s passion for the ideals and principles she cares about stands out for me; even a casual lunchtime conversation can become a forum for a lively, educational debate when Miriam is present at the table.”
Rabbi Wolkenfeld explained: “Miriam came to Princeton with the advantages of a strong Jewish education and a firm Jewish identity. She has always been clear about her values and her commitment to a life of mitzvot. Her horizons have expanded through the friendships she has cultivated and through the intense coursework of Princeton, without compromising her faith.
“To be a Sabbath-observant Jewish student at Princeton, who successfully completes the same demanding coursework as one’s peers with 25 fewer hours each week to devote to academic pursuits, requires a high degree of motivation and dedication to both academic studies and to Judaism. It is gratifying when an outside organization, like the Rhodes Scholarship, validates the commitment, perseverance, and intellectual excellence needed to balance academic success at an elite university with the conscientious cultivation of a life of Torah and mitzvot.”
Rabbi Ilan Haber, director of JLIC, and the former JLIC rabbi at Yale, expressed his delight over Miriam’s achievement. “I was very happy to hear about Miriam and her incredible accomplishment. I hope that this will bring her much additional success, and that her achievements will serve to inspire others,” Rabbi Haber said.
“Miriam is an active leader within her own Jewish community at Princeton. While obviously hers is a singular achievement, I am always greatly impressed with the caliber, poise, maturity, and capabilities of the students that I meet that make up the JLIC and Hillel communities on campus. With the role of JLIC to inspire, support and encourage students, I often find that the students equally inspire and motivate myself and the JLIC educators.”
Recognizing that after attending only all-girls Jewish schools Princeton would be something of a shock, while still in high school Miriam went for a Shabbat on campus when the JLIC couple was Rabbi Joshua Ross, now associate director of JLIC, and his wife, Rivky.
“I found it was a very nice community, very warm, it seemed like everyone cared for each other and knew everyone’s name,” Miriam recalls. Adds Rabbi Ross, “We were delighted to welcome Miriam, as well as other potential students, to observe Shabbat with us at JLIC, and it is no surprise that Miriam decided to apply to Princeton.”
If Princeton did not have an Orthodox rabbi, Miriam says, she would not have applied there. Meanwhile, once at Princeton, Miriam became part of a rapidly growing Jewish community making “wonderful friends.”
Miriam related quickly to the Wolkenfelds. “They both went to secular colleges and grew in their Judaism in their college years,” Miriam says. Over the four years she has done one-on-one chavruta learning with Sara; attended shiurim, including a recently concluded four-part series by David on the great Torah commentators; and was delighted when the Wolkenfelds played host to her parents for the first days of Sukkot.
Princeton students expect superior teaching skills, and that is what the Wolkenfelds have provided to Miriam and to her friends at JLIC. “They teach Torah at a very high level and present a sophisticated manner in their teaching,” said Miriam. “They have helped me learn Torah at the highest level that I can.”
Miriam will be studying bioethics at Oxford. In the fall 2009 semester, Miriam took part in the Jonas Salk Fellowship in Jewish BioMedical Ethics co-sponsored by JLIC and the Center for Jewish Life-Hillel at Princeton. Says Miriam, “Studying Jewish bioethics and medical halacha through the Jonas Salk Fellowship was a pivotal juncture in fostering my own interest in the field.”
Rabbi Wolkenfeld adds, “The occasions and circumstances that have prompted Miriam to seek our counsel or halachic advice demonstrate religious maturity, ethical sensitivity, and an idealism that, while not uncommon among our students at Princeton, nevertheless continues to inspire us,” he said.
Stephen Steiner is director of public relations for the Orthodox Union. This article also appeared in the OU’s Shabbat Shalom newsletter.
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