Ten years is a lifetime in college, but Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan aren’t leaving the college scene anytime soon. The Kaplans, the long-serving Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) educators, have been at UCLA for a decade. That milestone was recently celebrated at the OU West Coast Annual Awards Banquet at the Sephardic Temple.
The Kaplans arrived at their post in 2004 as part of the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which was founded three years earlier by Rabbi Menachem Schrader. The program consists of placing an Orthodox couple on a secular college campus to help Orthodox students navigate their way in life’s new phase.
Rabbi Kaplan had been studying for semicha at Yeshiva University and Sharona had just finished her degree in social work. UCLA had a relatively large Jewish population, and the seeds for Orthodox life had already been planted by another JLIC couple. Hillel had just built a new building and the timing couldn’t have been better. The first thing the two did was institute Shabbat and holiday lunches, allowing them to build a core group of dedicated college students.
Beginning with those Shabbat and holiday meals, the couple gradually expanded into other programming, including a dizzying array of lectures and activities for campus students. Along the way, the Kaplans witnessed their first students graduate and marry, and the arrival of a new crop of students. Being on campus for so long enables the Kaplans to have deeper relationships with their students, even after they graduate.
“In the Modern Orthodox community, the mantra is: I hope they survive secular college,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “We’re trying to change that. It’s not about surviving. It’s about thriving. We feel that the kids have a lot of potential. They give us a lot of chizuk.”