By Tori Bergel
The low hum of conversation fills this university’s Hillel. A group of girls sits off to the side, hunched over a round table, speaking animatedly to one another. Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they’re serious, but always the discussion centers on the words of the woman with honey-colored hair.
This is not a gossip circle, but a group of women who meet weekly to talk about life and Torah with one of Hillel’s most prominent educators: Avital Hirschhorn.
On campus, Hirschhorn, 28, works as a Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) educator, a position that she shares with her husband, Yonaton. The program is an initiative by the Orthodox Union—an organization that works to strengthen the Orthodox Jewish community—to help students thrive and stay religious on secular campuses.
“Essentially, we’re here to be the go-to people, whether that’s in a friendship capacity, a mentorship capacity, a rabbi capacity, fill-in parent capacity, sibling, whatever it is,” Hirschhorn said. “We are here for the self identified orthodox students on campus, but we’re here for really any Jews.”
“It’s 24/7, and I don’t view it as a job, like this has become my life,” she added. “We are here to help students flourish spiritually, religiously, personally.”
This mindset is what has made Hirschhorn so popular with students throughout her four years at this university. Whether through programming, social events, learning events or hosting Shabbat and holiday meals, Hirschhorn has found a way to help students grow.
Her favorite part of the job, however, is building relationships with individual students through group and one-on-one conversations and learning of Jewish ideas and teachings.
“These students have really become our friends and have become our family, and I think that that’s so special, and I think that’s something that goes beyond our time here at Maryland or their time here at Maryland, so it’s definitely something that I cherish and I’ll hold on to for a while,” Hirschhorn said.
For group learning, Hirschhorn said she tries to pick a topic she’s passionate about or thinks students will gain a lot from, but that is also relevant and applicable to modern campus life. For one-on-ones, she allows students more leeway, giving them the choice to talk about whatever it is they want during their 45-minute session, whether that’s Torah, life or anything else.
The hardest part, she said, is finding time for everyone who wants to meet. This university has over 500 self-identifying Orthodox students, according to Hirschhorn, who said that there just isn’t enough time in the week to accommodate them all.
Maddie Met, a junior information science major who meets with Hirschhorn regularly in both group and one-on-one settings, spoke about her experience and the impact Hirschhorn has had on her.
“She loves Torah, and everything that she teaches is something that, like, speaks to her specifically, so it inspires me more when I’m learning with her because she just has such a passion for it,” Met said. “She’s also just like … if I ever need anything, she’s always there. Just like, kind of like a mentor,” she added.
Having majored in business at Bar Ilan University, and loving management, Hirschhorn didn’t initially think this would be the path her life took. Once she and her husband did decide on this career, though, they never imagined themselves at this university, having initially preferred the University of Illinois.
“Before we even interviewed, we were like, no, like, we don’t want Maryland. We’re like, it’s a party school, like, I have nothing to say to these kids, I don’t know how I’m gonna relate to these kids, like, I don’t want to do it,” she said.
However, when they visited the campus, they fell in love with this university, and after interviewing, they got the position over 30 other couples who had applied for the job.
“We just felt like it was meant to be,” Hirschhorn said.
While Hirschhorn’s primary obligation under the OU is to Hillel’s more observant students, she has found a way to be a resource for all. Keren Kaynan, a junior family science major who considers herself to be one of the less religious students Hirschhorn meets with, said that they have a very close relationship.
“She really doesn’t make me feel badly about not being religious, but she does help me think about why that is,” Kaynan said.
“She wants to help me find answers to my questions,” she added.
Working with her husband has been a unique part of the job. Hirschhorn said it brought “a whole new element and aspect into our marriage.”
She added that the biggest challenge is trying to create a work-life balance so that she and Yonaton can separate being colleagues and being married. But she said the arrangement has pushed them to grow stronger in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to had they not been in this position.
Yonaton Hirschhorn, 31, agreed, but added that being able to see his wife in her element and “how transforming she is in what she’s doing is really really amazing.”
While Avital Hirschhorn loves this campus and the community, she said it’s been hard with her family so far away. Having lived in Israel before coming to the U.S., both her family and her husband’s are still there, and she said it’s been difficult not having seen them in almost two years.
She added that maybe if they were to visit over vacation and get a concentrated amount of family time “and just like, spirituality,” that might be enough “gas in the tank” to keep them going.
“I think without her, a lot of people will be missing out on the Shabbat experience and will have a harder time … fitting into the Jewish community,” Kaynan said.
Whatever happens, Avital Hirschhorn said she will cherish the time she’s spent at this university and the bonds she’s formed throughout.
“I truly believe that this is like, God has a hand in us being here and the students that we’ve met along the way,” she said.