Rabbi Schonfeld and Councilman Rory Lancman (center) cut the ribbon at the Hamercaz Queens College launch event, along with Hamercaz Steering Committee members and staff members. L–R: Yehuda Poupko, QC Hillel executive director Uri Cohen, Rabbi Moshe Bilitzky, Sam Konig, and OU-JLIC co-directors Rabbi Robby and Mrs. Shoshana Charnoff

By Rochelle Maruch Miller

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld speaks about the critical need for support
for Orthodox college students on campus

With its remarkable number of 1,000 Orthodox students, Queens College is the preeminent college destination of observant students. Nestled in Kew Gardens Hills, one of the largest Orthodox neighborhoods in the city, it is a vibrant and gracious community both on and off campus. Accommodating the special religious requirements of our community, Queens College was ranked by The Forward as the #1 public college or university in the country for Orthodox students. Between an on-campus dormitory and neighborhood apartments, there are 300—400 Jewish students living on or near campus on a week-to-week basis. From communities near and far, the students come, representing Queens, the Five Towns, Far Rockaway, Great Neck, Brooklyn, Bergen County, Riverdale, and Westchester–all sharing a common goal: to avail themselves of an outstanding education in a college setting that provides ample opportunities for spiritual growth and enhancement according to the tenets of the Torah. Students who otherwise commute often stay with friends in the neighborhood to participate in Shabbos and yom tov programming such as free Friday-night dinner, monthly Shabbatonim, and Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah festivities.

“There is ready access to kosher food, the presence of an eiruv, three sukkahs, and a shomer Shabbos-friendly academic calendar, making it easy for Orthodox students to embrace a campus-friendly lifestyle, should they choose to do so,” explained Uri Cohen, executive director of Queens College Hillel.

Offering superb programming in Torah learning, community building, and Israel engagement–three pillars of Orthodox life–Hamercaz QC provides serious and vital support for Orthodox students in college, Hamercaz Queens College is truly the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at Queens College. Hamercaz is designed to bring this community that is permeated with Torah scholarship, community leadership, and commitment to Israel to the next level.

OU-JLIC co-director Rabbi Robby Charnoff leads a breakout session on the Torah-learning opportunities offered to Orthodox students at Queens College through Hamercaz

Launched in October 2017, Hamercaz QC–a partnership between Queens College Hillel and OU-JLIC–provides robust support and opportunities for the Orthodox students of Queens College. Hamercaz supports social programming specifically designed to meet the needs of Orthodox students on campus. This includes both single-gender and co-ed options specifically designed so that they can meet the needs of the students based on their needs and interests in a supportive and safe environment. Additionally, Hamercaz supports chesed programming that engages students in working for the greater good, including Save a Child’s Heart, Gift of Life, and Masbia. They feature a distinguished staff that includes rabbis and rabbinic interns, male and female Torah educators, community organizers, guest speakers, and more.

Transmitting our rich tradition and identity to the next generation through Torah study has been a time-honored tradition in perpetuating the past and maintaining our mesorah. To that end, the Torah-learning pillar of Hamercaz QC is built around the beis midrash for content, teacher, and learning. In addition to daily minyanim, weekly shiurim, daily chaburos, and student chavrusas taking place on campus, there is a wealth of superb Torah-learning opportunities for spiritual growth. HaMidrasha@Queens College is a high-level, on-campus Jewish learning program for women; Mishmar affords students the opportunity to learn in gender-separate groups in an informal setting.

Featured guest speakers have included Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, Dr. David Pelcovitz, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky; and Mr. Charlie Harary.

Hamercaz learning features rabbis from prestigious yeshivas and seminaries including Lev Hatorah, Netiv Aryeh, Sha’alvim for Women, Tiferet, MMY, Harova, and many more who come regularly to learn with their graduates in a setting conducive to limud Torah.

Hamercaz builds our future leaders, the core of every community. Fostering intensive leadership growth for dozens of Orthodox students each year through its many programs, Hamercaz provides them with mentoring, training in community organizing, budgeting, and managing volunteers towards a common goal. Staff-supported and student-led, Hamercaz produces experienced leaders.

Another major key to Jewish identity is a meaningful relationship with Israel. Many students have spent time in Israel with family or on gap-year or other programs, while others have not and are seeking such opportunities. In both cases, students are growing as Jewish adults and often struggle to articulate their relationship with Israel in light of the challenges to Israel that can exist on college campuses.

Featured Israel exploration opportunities include:

  • Birthright, including specifically Orthodox providers such as the Orthodox Union, Sachlav, and Ezra.
  • Israel study programs such as Onward Israel, Masa, and Migdalim.
  • Beismidrash programs in Israel during various school breaks.
  • Nefesh B’Nefesh works regularly with students interested in making aliyah.

“We have sponsored Israel-focused, public social and educational programs such as Yom HaAtzma’ut on the quad,” said Uri Cohen. “TAMID, the Israel Business Club, connects students with Israeli startup organizations, Jewish venture capitalists, and Israel-focused students on other campuses.”

Additionally, Hamercaz subsidizes student participation in the AIPAC policy conference each year.

On Monday, October 30, the Hamercaz QC Launch Event was held, graced by esteemed rabbis, dignitaries, staff, and students. Councilman Rory Lancman delivered heartfelt remarks about the sense of leadership and the key role the Orthodox community plays in the community at large. Rabbi Shalom Axelrod, who has been actively involved in Jewish life at Queens College, was also present, as were members of the Hamercaz Queens College Steering Committee, which includes Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Yehuda Poupko, Rabbi Moshe Bilitzky, Sam Konig, and Moshe Kinderlehrer.

In his keynote address, Rabbi Schonfeld discussed the gaps in the education system that leave students vulnerable. Highlighting the need for strong support for Orthodox students, Rabbi Schonfeld noted that Hamercaz could be a model for such support systems elsewhere if they are successful at Queens College.

“The event really reflected what Hamercaz Queens College is all about,” said Uri Cohen. “Rabbi Schonfeld highlighted the critical need in the Orthodox community for serious and personal support for students in college–he’s right because this is the critical moment when they make their first adult decisions. To have representatives from Orthodox neighborhoods across the metropolitan area that send hundreds of students to Queens College as well as local officials and our key partners join in the ribbon-cutting ceremony with us and then stay to engage with what we’re doing on the ground was really tremendous. I’m looking forward to the next phases of this project.”

For additional information about Hamercaz Queens College, please call 718-997-3980, visit HamercazQC.org, or e-mail contact@hamercazqc.org.

Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative-media consultant, lecturer, and educator who writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.



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