It has long been widely known that Queens College is a good choice for Jewish students—and for Orthodox students in particular. However, most people do not know why, or the extent and variety of the resources available to this robust community. Queens College Hillel hopes to change that by starting a new chapter in its history with the establishment of Hamercaz Queens College—the Center for Orthodox Jewish Life & Learning.
Uri Cohen, executive director of Queens College Hillel and coordinator of Hamercaz Queens College, described it as “a new initiative to take a holistic approach to how we serve the Orthodox community at Queens College.” The goal of the program is to engage the community and create a dialogue with the Orthodox communities it serves in order to maximize the services available to the Orthodox students on campus.
Cohen elaborated, “Now is the right time because the pieces have all come together in a high-leverage way.” Queens College is in its 80th year, while its Hillel is in its 70th year, but there is a new generation of Jewish learning (including the presence of OU-JLIC on campus) that is only about 6 years old.
Since Cohen started in his position seven years ago, Queens College Hillel has reinvented its vision for itself with new staff, a greatly expanded budget and renovated space. When he began, there were an estimated 16,000 undergraduate students at Queens College, 4,000 Jewish students (25 percent of the student body), and fully 1,000 of those Jewish students came from Orthodox backgrounds. Cohen is sure that those numbers have grown. Six years ago, Queens College Hillel brought OU-JLIC to campus, headed by Shoshana and Rabbi Robby Charnoff, to serve the Orthodox community. With this increase in capacity came an increase in demand over time for a more focused approach to the resources for the Orthodox student body, and Hamercaz Queens College was born.
On Monday night, October 30, a crowd gathered in the Queens College Hillel to celebrate the program’s launch. Cohen began the evening with introductory remarks explaining the initiative and its goals. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills delivered the keynote address, in which he stressed the importance of providing robust support to college students from Orthodox backgrounds at the time at which they start to make their first adult choices. He expressed his hope that Hamercaz Queens College will be successful and may serve as a model for other campuses to do the same.
Following Rabbi Schonfeld’s speech, Councilman Rory Lancman of New York City’s 24th City Council District voiced his support for the program. Landsman focused on how this initiative will be able to foster strong future leaders, not only in the Jewish community but in the community as a whole.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony followed the councilman’s remarks, and then attendees divided into breakout groups to talk about the three pillars of Hamercaz Queens College: Torah learning, community building and Israel engagement. The breakout groups gave attendees a taste of the programming already in place upon which Hamercaz Queens College hopes to build: shiurim, Shabbat programming, leadership development and opportunities to explore and learn about Israel.
“The main goal is to increase the services and opportunities that we can provide to the Orthodox students on campus,” Cohen said. “The steps to get to that goal involve communication and cooperation with the communities that send students here.”
Cohen has been working with a small steering committee that represents the various geographic communities that send students to Queens College. He hopes to set up focus groups in those communities to help gather information and advice that will help Hamercaz Queens College refine its approach to how it provides for students and how it handles publicity.
“We want people to appreciate what is happening here, to help us be smarter and increase the depth of our work. Queens is fabulous for Orthodox students because of hard work and vibrant Jewish life—everyone should know what’s here and why,” Cohen explained. It is essential that as the Orthodox population at Queens College grows, the Hillel’s ability to create a community for those students will increase as well, and that is what Hamercaz Queens College plans to do.
Cohen would like to thank the members of the steering committee, including Jewish Link Co-Publisher Moshe Kinderlehrer, who serves as a thought partner, and Rabbi Schonfeld, for backing the initiative. Cohen appreciates that people understand the power of such programming on campus, and hopes that Hamercaz Queens College will increase that recognition, thereby increasing its impact.
Esti Ness is Teaneck resident, a junior at Queens College and was a Jewish Link summer intern. She is a pre-law student double majoring in political science and sociology, and minoring in history.
By Esti Ness