Avi and Sara Schwartz, co-directors of The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) at Rutgers University, have made it their mission to provide unwavering Orthodox support for students navigating this incredibly intricate time in their lives. Amidst the COVID-19 chaos, students across the globe are adapting to online and hybrid learning and adhering to new and continuously evolving health protocols while also trying to maintain connections with limited in-person interaction. Jewish students particularly are facing complex social, psychological, and halachic questions arising from the COVID-19 virus.
In addition to providing spiritual counsel on personal issues and traditional questions of halacha, Avi and Sara provide guidance on unique topics such as COVID-19 vaccinations during Shabbat, vaccination blessings and whether one can fulfill halachic obligations through hearing megillah online. They have also provided safe environments for students to comfortably address concerns over rising antisemitism on college campuses and social media. “Discussions around all of these issues are extremely nuanced in nature,” Avi said. “These topics require lots of listening, empathy, and the strength to admit when you don’t have all the answers.”
Although both are only 29 years old, Avi and Sara’s road to Rutgers wasn’t a straightforward one. Avi struggled as a college student. Convinced he wasn’t cut out for academics, Avi focused on helping others by enrolling in Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary rabbinic program after graduation. In his final year at RIETS, he experienced a severe anxiety attack. Avi confided in a rabbi on campus who encouraged him to seek professional guidance. Soon after, he was diagnosed with ADHD. Instead of being deterred, the diagnosis gave Avi a new perspective on his past struggles and resulted in Avi obtaining his master’s degree in social work while graduating top of his class.
“This experience showed me that we all have great potential, we just need to have the right support and tools to bring that out,” Avi said. “This is one of the guiding principles of why I want to help others.”
The journey didn’t end there, however. Avi and his wife, Sara, were blessed with two children, their son, Noam, and two years later, their daughter, Kiki. Shortly after Kiki was born, she was diagnosed with 3q duplication, a rare genetic disease with very few documented cases in the world. Deeply worried and thrown into a confusingly complex medical world, they spent the first year and a half of Kiki’s life in hospitals as she received a tracheostomy, heart surgery and spine surgery, and dealing with a host of developmental delays.
During Sukkot of 2020, they received a call from the Children’s Specialized Hospital, a long-term-care facility where Kiki received 24-hour medical care. The hospital informed them that Kiki was unresponsive after having a seizure and was being rushed to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rushing to the hospital from their home in Teaneck, New Jersey, they were relieved to find Kiki in critical yet stable condition. As they awaited results of various tests, they went for a walk around New Brunswick after dinner on Shemini Atzeret. Stumbling upon a sukkah at the Rutgers Hillel, they were grateful to find a place where they could celebrate Simchat Torah the next day.
A few weeks later, Avi and Sara received a call from Rabbi Gideon Black, the JLIC director of professional recruitment and leadership development at the Orthodox Union. Explaining that they both left such a positive impression on the students, he offered Avi and Sara a position as a part-time JLIC couple to lead the remaining Shabbat services for the year.
“Avi and I looked at each other and we couldn’t believe what a wonderful opportunity had presented itself,” Sara said. “We’ve always been extremely involved with younger generations by providing a warm and supportive Orthodox presence. The pandemic made that really hard to achieve and this was a great opportunity to get back into doing that. ”
After accepting the position, Avi and Sara committed themselves to more than just Shabbat. They each led informal shiurim during the week and tried to be available as much as possible to the students while Avi continued working as a psychotherapist and Sara worked full time at NJNCSY. The impact they have made on the students has resulted in Avi and Sara now moving to a new home in New Brunswick where they can be even more accessible to the students. They are also overjoyed that Kiki has been released from the hospital and has recovered from her seizure.
“Always be open to God’s plan,” Avi said. “We didn’t know it as we endured it, but everything that’s happened in our lives has led us to where we are today. You never know where and when you can help others, but we have no doubt that this was divine intervention.”
The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus helps young men and women thrive and observe key aspects of Jewish life in secular campus environments across the United States, Canada and Israel. To learn more about Rutgers OU-JLIC, visit https://rutgers.oujlic.org/.
Sigalle Barness writes about food, travel and wellness. She is an avid lover of music, cooking and asking questions. She also enjoys writing fiction, practicing yoga and scuba diving. Sigalle graduated from Rutgers University and holds a BA in English. She received her JD from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.