Two hours away from the ever-growing Jewish community in Chicago, Illinois is the bustling and exciting campus of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Its hugely diverse campus, where Jewish students make up about 10% of the student body. Two years ago, Rabbi Yehoshua Dovid Schwartz and his wife Chava left Ramat Eshkol, where they had been in Aish’s Ner Le’Elef program, for Urbana-Champaign and haven’t looked back. Earlier this year The Jewish Press had the opportunity to talk to the Schwartzs about their experiences on campus.
JP: How did you choose Urbana-Champaign and what has the adjustment been like for your family?
YD: We interviewed at a number of different campuses and felt that this one was the one we were best suited for. We like the Midwest and the people here. Integration took a while because moving from Yerushalayim, a city with such a big Jewish community, to Champaign-Urbana, a city with almost no Jewish infrastructure. But we’ve become part of Jewish life here.
Chava: Coming here was a whirlwind; we kind of hit the ground running. We got to our house in Champaign two weeks before the semester started. It was more about integrating into the Jewish community on campus and the other organizations that we work with. We all have different styles, methods and priorities but there’s enough Jewish students for everyone to share.
There are no Jewish schools here. We send our daughter Meira to a Montessori preschool. They’re very understanding and willing to learn and cooperate with us. Meira loves what we do. She’s more comfortable with the students here than with kids her own age. Her Judaism is really flourishing and she’s becoming a teacher herself. At one point we realized that she almost never sat next to us at our Shabbos meals, she was sitting as far away as she could. When we asked her why, she said that’s where the newest students sit and she wants to teach them how nice Shabbos is.
JP: How large and how active is the Jewish community in the city and on campus?
YD: We estimate there are anywhere from 5,000-8,000 Jewish students on campus. Between us, Hillel and Chabad, we see about 1,000-1,500 of them at some point during the year and there are a few hundred who actively participate in programs and sit on our student boards. There’s one Reform temple in Champaign-Urbana. It’s not too integrated with the community on campus, but we’re trying to change that.
Chava: The community isn’t very big. It’s a struggle to get a minyan together on Shabbos when the students aren’t around. A mikvah opened a few months ago for the women, and it’s a great asset. On an average Shabbos, we’ll have about 20-40 students at a meal. An interesting piece of information is that the Hillel on our campus was the first one in America.
Do you get interest from the non-Jews on campus?
Chava: Sometimes! We get approached by some non-Jews who are “looking for something.” We also have students who aren’t halachically Jewish. One student just converted and another is in the process.
But honestly, sometimes it feels like a losing battle. Campus professionals can’t do it by themselves – we need everyone’s help to succeed.
Have things changed since you first arrived?
YD: On a college campus, the community is always changing. Students graduate, campus couples change, etc. There was much less involvement when we first got here, but we’ve been working hard to interest the Jewish but not yet observant population. We’ve started a lot of new programs and initiatives to facilitate that, like our Unity Programs with the other organizations on campus. When there’s an air of Jewish unity, irrelevant of what it’s circling around, a larger Jewish student body shows up. JET has started partnering with organizations like AIPAC and Center for Jewish Genetics for events, education and co-sponsorship.
Chava: Student involvement has definitely grown. We have non-religious students coming to minyan once a week, even if it is because my husband literally goes to their dorms and wakes them up. We had an achdus Shabbos this year for the first time and it was a huge success. It’s important for the students to see the Jewish organizations working together.
How do you define your roles in the community?
YD: We moved from Yerushalayim where we were pretty small fish, and here it’s like being the Gadol Hador. I’ve lost my identity; I am now “Rabbi.” But it’s more than that – in a way we’re second parents to these kids. They call us for advice, with relationship issues, when they’re stuck in snow storms.
Chava: We see ourselves as a kli for the Jewish community at large. We’re mostly here for the students but we do more. Even though it’s not something I ever saw myself doing, I’m a “mikvah lady” because I’m one of the only ones here who can do it. I’ll drop whatever I’m doing if a woman calls me for a mikvah appointment because no one else can and maybe they won’t go if I can’t be there for them. We’re really here to create enough Orthodox Jewish infrastructure to get more Orthodox involvement, to build a constant, steady Orthodox community.
Tell us about some of your major projects.
YD: The Unity Projects have been a major accomplishment; they were absolutely amazing, initiated by our JET Student Board. We run a Meor, Maimonides Leaders Fellowship every semester and put a lot of focus on Jewish education. We try to introduce the students to Jewish communities; we take them to Chicago to show them how things can be.
I meet between 20 and 40 students a week, one-on-one. We want our students to know that they’re not just a number. Students are attracted to the personal approach and the time and effort they know goes into developing relationships. We also really want our students to have fun. We use food [YD is a professional chef] as an intermediary sometimes. At the core, we’re about authentic Judaism and self-development that’s relevant to their lives.
Chava: Our constant goal is to up student involvement with Jewish life on campus, even if it’s not with JET specifically. The goal is to get students to care. We try to make our classes dynamic and fun, almost always based around what they want to learn. We also do a lot of one-on-one learning. I meet with about 15 students every week to talk and learn. My husband mentioned food, we held a “Sushi Shabbat” a few weeks into our first semester and it attracted 70 students.
Have you experienced any anti-Semitism on campus?
YD: While I haven’t experienced any personally – people seem to respect members of the clergy – there is definitely anti-Semitism on campus. Every year there’s anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian rallies. One year they put up this huge “apartheid wall.” It was about 20-feet tall and very imposing. So our Jewish students ran through all the campus by-laws and found that they weren’t allowed to and they had to take it down. We’ve made a lot of headway in getting our students to be actively pro-Israel.
Any inspirational stories you can share?
YD: Once when we were tabling (that’s setting up a table on campus and asking students who pass by if they are Jewish), a guy hedged a bit and said, “no… not really.” I asked what “not really” meant and he said, “Well, my mom’s Jewish.” I looked him straight in the eye and said, “You know, according to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish. You are 100% Jewish.” He looked right back at me and just burst out crying. He came one Shabbat and that was really it for his involvement, but the impact of just knowing he’s Jewish is something huge and important.