Observant students at Queens College enjoy a wide variety of programs, facilities and amenities without a high price tag or long commute.
On a recent spring morning, visitors to the Quad at the center of the Queens College campus were greeted by the familiar sights of administrative buildings with red, Spanish-tile roofs, blooming cherry blossoms on trees around the quad, a pickup Frisbee game — and a camel. “Is this the selfie line?” someone asked as a crowd formed around the pen. Within 15 minutes the quad had transformed into the annual Israel-Fest: the Israel Business Club handed out free bags of Bissli snacks, and long lines formed for free food and the chance to climb “Masada” (actually an inflatable “Tiki Island” contraption renamed for the day). On other campuses, a show of pro-Israel pride might have been met by protesters and a whole “megillah” of back and forth on the Middle East, but at Queens, believed to have the highest Orthodox Jewish population at a secular school in the U.S., it was just another day’s club hour.
“Queens College is your home away from home,” said Judd Eisenberg, 18, of West Hempstead. “It is a place where you can come and feel comfortable in your own skin as an observant Jew. I can easily walk around with a kippah on my head. I am able to attend Torah classes during lunch, daven Mincha at the QC Hillel, then attend math class where my teacher wears a kippah and tzitzit.”As befits a campus in the heart of one of New York City’s most vigorous Orthodox communities, just blocks from a shomer Shabbat shopping strip on Main Street, Queens College has it all.
With thriving Jewish clubs and interest groups, Torah classes on campus, abundant activities and Shabbatons, the school’s solid academic reputation and course offerings make it a great fit, at a bargain price, for students from as close as Kew Gardens Hills, the Five Towns or Great Neck and as far away as New Jersey. Walk around the kosher cafeteria, with meat and dairy offerings (separately) available in the QCaf (now including $5 meat sandwiches, pizza and sushi), check out minyans or classes at the Hillel, enjoy Shabbat hospitality or a communal holiday celebration and you’ll see not only a thriving Jewish campus community but a diverse one.
Among the estimated 4,000 Jewish students on campus, about one quarter are Orthodox, spanning from Modern to Haredi, with large concentrations of Bucharian, Persians, Syrians and Israelis. As on many campuses, Jewish life revolves around the Hillel center, with close coordination between the staff at Queens College Hillel, OU-JLIC and Chabad. “We attend weekly meetings and have a very positive relationship with our Hillel director,” says Shoshana Charnoff, the OU-JLIC Torah educator at Queens, with her husband, Rabbi Robby Charnoff.
OU-JLIC works in partnership with Hillel and the Charnoffs are considered members of the staff. Reflecting the diversity of the campus, OU-JLIC at Queens caters to Orthodox students across the entire Orthodox spectrum with events and shiurim for single gender as well as coed groups. “We also offer events and shiurim during the day as well as at night so that commuters and residential students can all attend,” says Shoshana Charnoff. The primary challenge faced by the Charnoffs is building a sense of community at a commuter school, where Jewish students can spend as little as four or five hours a week on campus.
Their biggest challenge in doing this came early in their tenure when Superstorm Sandy struck in the middle of the fall semester of 2012. They rallied by organizing some 50 Orthodox students who had dorm rooms and hundreds more in apartments nearby to house commuters who faced transportation issues, with homes and cars destroyed and gasoline in short supply. The Hillel also pitched in with extended hours for studying and connecting with friends. There were numerous opportunities for students to pitch in collecting food and offering support for those in need.“Something like that forces us to reevaluate what it means to have a rabbinic figure on campus and what it means to create a campus community,” said Rabbi Charnoff at the time. “Our goal as Queens College OU-JLIC Torah educators is to respond in a way in which we can help college students beyond the assistance offered by their shul or home communities. We want them to be able to focus on their schoolwork and social lives and resume as normal a life as possible as college students.”
There’s no question the opportunity to graduate with little or no student debt is a big part of the lure at Queens (a 12-credit semester in 2015 costs $3,120 for New York state residents, and $6,420 for others). Additionally, top students can qualify for the Macaulay Honors Program, a full scholarship, or other partial scholarships.The laid-back atmosphere is also attractive. While Middle East-related tensions are a seemingly inevitable part of every campus, the situation is fairly cordial at Queens.“It’s a great school at a great price, and our Hillel provides an elite level of infrastructure, support, and Jewish growth opportunities for observant students that can be found on only a handful of campuses in the U.S.,” said Queens’ Hillel director Uri Cohen. “Queens College has a reputation now for a great community — that’s why most of the students I talk to chose to come here. With Hillel and OU-JLIC providing for Jewish needs, and a Jewish calendar-friendly academic culture, it’s a wonderful place to learn and to grow as a college student and as a Jew.” Rikki Bulka of Woodmere, NY, added, “The Jewish life on campus is vibrant and animated, and there really is so much opportunity to get involved and form lasting relationships with people who come from the same place as you do.” Others say Queens offers an opportunity to broaden horizons, and the ability to expand a social network while maintaining a strong Jewish base amounts to the best of both worlds.
“There is a large enough percentage of Jews at QC that I don’t feel out of place or ostracized, but not too large a percentage where I feel as if I am living in a bubble,” said Brian Small of Teaneck, NJ. Added Daniel Ash of Cedarhurst, NY, “I like how the Jewish community is incorporated into the Queens College community, unlike high school which was entirely Jewish. I have the opportunity to meet up with my Jewish friends and have lunch in a kosher cafeteria as well as take classes with them. “Betty Aboff of West Hempstead, NY, a 1988 Queens alumna, never had much doubt that her kids would follow in her academic footsteps. Natan, 23, graduated last year with a degree in economics, and Robbie, 20, will be a junior in the fall. “I had a very positive experience” said Aboff, who also has a daughter, still in high school. “I always wanted to send my kids to have the same great experience I did.” While the short commute was a “high percentage” of the appeal, the campus environment and Jewish activities were also important.
It’s hard to pinpoint any particular event as the highlight or focal point of Jewish life on campus, since each semester has its own flavor. “We have a very successful weekly Seudah Shlishit in our home which has been consistent since our first week on campus almost three years ago,” said Charnoff. “Rosh Chodesh events for women are very popular.
This year, our new intensive learning program HaMidrasha@QC has taken off and currently has 32 women enrolled in two- or four-day-a-week learning in the afternoon.”The three-year HaMidrasha program, unique at a secular campus, aims to help students take serious and consistent Torah learning and Jewish life into the college years and beyond. It focuses on core ideas and philosophies in Judaism as well as in-depth, chavruta learning of Chumash, Navi (prophets), halachah, and hashkafah (ethics). Among social events, OU-JLIC’s Hamantashen baking, Melaveh Malka, and Hagaddah Round Robin have been extra popular as well its First-Year-Student on Campus Shabbatonim, for freshmen and transfer students.
Because of these amenities, a student at Queens who arrives from a yeshiva in Israel or a religious high school setting isn’t likely to experience much culture shock.“For someone leaving the safe confines of Jewish day school and seminary/yeshiva, when they arrive at Queens College, they are met with a lot of options and are surrounded by people they may never have interacted with before,” Shoshana Charnoff told OU-JLIC. “Classes and professors will be speaking about topics, asking difficult questions. OU-JLIC is an anchor for the students on campus, guiding them to help them navigate the challenges that will come up through their college career and enabling them to grow in their personal religious journey through shiurim and chevrutot.
Additionally, we help to provide a community where students can feel comfortable to grow and explore.”OU-JLIC at Queens regularly revises and customizes programs based on students’ interests and schedules; indeed some of the most successful Jewish learning opportunities have been generated in collaboration with the students, and therefore meet their particular interests and work within the confines of their particular schedule. As solid as the Jewish presence at Queens maybe, Shoshana Charnoff sees further growth ahead.“We have only just begun,” she said. “We do anticipate continued growth of Jewish student life both in terms of quality and quantity.” ■
Rabbi Robby and Shoshana Charnoff