by Naomi Kohl
Working on campus under the auspices of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus was an awesome and empowering opportunity for me. I always felt very blessed that my husband, Eli, and I ended up at the University of Maryland, College Park, because it was exactly the kind of community in which I felt comfortable. Our community attracted many students who respected tradition but were looking for new ways to find their connection. That dichotomy was critical and played itself out every year in new situations that tested the community’s desire to stay rooted in tradition while engaging in the contemporary conversation about issues of the day.
I went to Yeshiva University from 2001 to 2006, including a year in Israel and two years in graduate school. I graduated with a B.A. in psychology and Judaic studies and then received my master’s degree in Jewish education and social work. I always felt that I was working toward my own kind of semikhah. I was having trouble figuring out what I wanted to do with my life when the opportunity to be JLIC educators at the University of Maryland arose for my husband and me. It was the perfect opportunity to build on my interests in teaching and helping others. From the time we first arrived, when students started their first women’s tefillah, to our departure seven years later, with a partnership minyan beginning, I often found myself in the crosshairs of a dilemma. Even though I might not personally choose to daven in a women’s tefillah or to hold the Torah on Simchat Torah, I did my utmost to understand, support, and connect to those who did. I think some students who had feelings similar to mine appreciated the lack of pressure to participate in a way that was not comfortable for them.
Whenever my husband and I would discuss the latest issue in the community, I found myself advocating for and being the voice for other women. I also credit my husband for always trying to understand the issues on a very deep level rather than just looking at halakhah as black and white. He understood how any response he gave affected real people, on both a communal level and a personal level. We tried to be sensitive at all times to make sure everyone found way to connect.
It was interesting to observe how students would view my husband’s and my roles, depending upon the circumstances. I recall many times—continuing even up until today— getting Facebook messages saying, “I have a question for Rabbi Kohl, but maybe you could help.” Depending upon the type of question, many times I could answer. Given the questions I received, I often wondered whether, if they did not have a Modern Orthodox female leader on campus, these girls would have asked one of the rabbis instead. Even though I had no semikhah or formal credentials, there were certain questions of kashrut in the kitchen or hilkhot niddah that, if I knew the answer, I would reply. However, most of the time I felt more comfortable if I checked with my husband, as I did not have the years of learning and training that he did. Conversely, there were many times when my husband knew the halakhah but would consult with me as to how an answer would play out, because it was something I had dealt with more often than he had.
For years, unbeknownst to most of our community, we would frequently debate and talk about the multitude of ways in which we could answer a question. We really struggled with how to find and present the best possible answer for a specific scenario.
How I Grew
I grew so much and was definitely changed by the JLIC experience. To be in an environment with so many different people and to try to find space for everyone was eye-opening for me. Being in a leadership position meant that I was forced to struggle with scenarios. Had I lived in my own bubble and not been thrust into the public sphere, I would not have engaged these issues if I felt uncomfortable.
I feel so lucky that we had incredible students who respected our personal choices and communal decisions. I was personally inspired by the girls who told me that had they gone to a college with a more liberal Jewish community, they might have been able to participate more in the community, but because Maryland was more traditional at the time than other campuses, they were forced to see the bigger communal picture and respect ideas that they may not otherwise have needed to confront.
Their maturity and respect for others was something I will always admire. I feel so lucky to have been in a community with women like that and will take their examples as lessons for me.
Naomi Kohl is the Alumni Relations Coordinator for SAR Academy and SAR High School. She was the JLIC Educator at the University of Maryland from 2006 through 2013.