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Nations first outreach kollel opens in Madison
February 9th, 2007
Milwaukee native Eytan Israel has been out of his home state for several years, as he went to school, got married and became a father. A unique program in Madison is drawing him home, now to do campus outreach.
And the campus in question is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Israel, his wife Leah, and five other young Jewish men and their wives are doing something apparently unique and pioneering in this country.
Under the auspices of Jewish Experience Madison/Milwaukee Inc., this group on Feb. 1 opened an education and resource center, which is the only outreach kollel on a college campus in the entire United States, according to JEMMs Milwaukee-based executive director Rabbi Rocky Anton.
As in any kollel, or institute for the advanced study of the Talmud or rabbinic literature, these young men spend their mornings in Jewish study under the guidance of a rosh kollel, Rabbi Ayson Ganeles, who will commute from Milwaukee.
Then they and their wives will spend afternoons and evenings doing outreach with the students at the campus, striving to invite them to explore their Jewish heritage.
We want to reach as many students as possible and offer them the opportunity to learn more about Judaism, said Israel in a telephone interview.
The kollel members will first seek to contact some of the estimated 5,000 Jewish students at the Madison campus (out of a total student population of some 41,000 according to the UW Web site). They will do this formally by setting up tables at the Memorial Union and the Library Mall, and informally by living among the students.
The couples all live in campus-area apartments, especially those with large numbers of Jewish students in them, said Anton. That maximizes the amount of students they come in contact with, he said.
Moreover, these student rabbi families are most friendly, warm and approachable, Anton said. They are excellent role models who can offer guidance and mentoring, he said.
A gold mine
After making initial contact, the kollel plans to offer formal and informal opportunities to learn about Judaism, from Sabbath dinners to programs with guest lecturers to text study all the way to inexpensive trips to Israel during the summer and mid-winter break.
But the goal is not to indoctrinate the students, Anton said. Were Orthodox, but the students will not become Orthodox most likely, he said. We want them to make an educated choice.
With so many Jewish students exploring other religions, they need to explore Judaism and give it a chance, said Anton.
In charge of all outreach efforts is group manager Rabbi Sandor Milun. He is a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, and an accountant by training who decided it was not for me to sit in front of a computer.
He learned from his experiences as a counselor and director of a Jewish camp, and as head of the youth organization Betar that I absolutely love being around Jews, Milun said in a telephone interview.
He was studying in Israel when he met Anton and learned about the Madison project; and he took the job because he sees enormous potential in the project and the UW location.
Milun also sees there an opportunity for growing and developing his own learning through the morning study while I am helping other Jews grow and develop their learning and skills and interest.
Israel, for his part, learned earlier in his life that he wanted to do outreach. He grew up on Milwaukees West Side and was one of the first students at the Yeshiva Elementary School when it opened. His mother, Shelley Israel, is the longtime advisor to the local National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
Being in that type of environment, I always had an interest in outreach and being involved in the community, he said. He, too, was studying in Israel when Anton, who knew of my upbringing, contacted him about the Madison project.
The project overall was Antons idea, he said. He had helped found JEMM about two years ago as an independent outreach organization and, with Rabbi Avi Zaitschek, was commuting to do outreach in Madison. During that time, said Anton, nearly 400 students came to one program or another.
Over those two years, we found so many students who were not involved and unaffiliated, Anton said. I realized this is a gold mine here if we just had the manpower to reach out to them.
And connecting with college students is crucial, said Anton. A Conservative rabbi told me that This is where we lose them, he said.
But it can also be a place where Jewish students can become attracted to Judaism, Anton said. They are in a discovery mode, a point in life when they are starting to think about the purpose of life, when they are searching for meaning . They are looking for a connection to spirituality, which is what we do.
This is not to say nobody is doing outreach. Anton acknowledged that the Hillel Foundation University of Wisconsin and the Chabad House at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were there before JEMM.
Yet these organizations are not enough to serve everybody, said Anton. 5,000 Jewish students is a huge number, and there is room for another 10 organizations.
Some students will find a home at Hillel, some at Chabad, and some will find our rabbis and their wives to be so nice they will find their place with us, he said.
Anton will continue to supervise the program from Milwaukee. He said JEMM has a benefactor who contributes more than $500,000 annually, which is over two-thirds of the budget, the rest of which Anton raises.
Anton also said he plans at some point to expand the program to the Milwaukee area.
For more information about JEMM, call 414-708-6353 or 608-255-2340.