By: David Rubinstein  | 

RAK and The Jewish Home: New Initiatives Create Communities, Avoid Structure

For Ilan Farber, this year has been busy and fulfilling both in class and beyond the academic curriculum. Farber, a junior from Toronto studying biology and psychology, takes a full Yeshiva College course load. But in addition to his class work, Farber has been hard at work creating opportunities for YU students to find fulfillment in their lives both during the week through the Random Acts of Kindness club and on weekends, at the Jewish Home.

The two initiatives have a lot in common, even if they are not always thought of together. For one, Ilan Farber is intimately involved in both. Beyond this, however, they are both outlets for and sources of meaning in the lives of YU students. And perhaps most strikingly, both seek to foster a sense of community informal structures.

Random Acts of Kindness, referred to as “RAK,” is a club that coordinates initiatives that focus on giving to other people and making people’s day better, specifically in unexpected ways.

Presently, RAK is hosting the social media initiative “What’s Your RAK,” in which participants share images of themselves engaging in acts of kindness. The unstructured nature of the initiative encourages even those who are not committed RAK members to promulgate acts of kindness.This winter, RAK sponsored hot chocolate for passerby on the Wilf Campus and distributed bottles of water to weary travelers at the 181st Street 1 train subway station.

The RAK concept was conceived last year by Yaakov Green, a biology major at York University in Ontario, Canada. The club soon became the largest on campus. Inspired by the RAK idea and the success it showed at York, Farber began trying to start a RAK chapter at YU.

RAK at YU didn’t start, however, until Avi Kohanzadeh approached Farber with his parallel interest in starting a RAK chapter. “As soon as Avi approached me,” Farber related, “I knew that RAK could start. Here was someone who was equally passionate as me.”

Kohanzadeh, RAK co-president and a pre-med junior majoring in biology, explained his inspiration for starting the club: “I come from a small college town in Ontario, Canada where the small Jewish community is very closely interconnected and is also very connected to the greater community surrounding it.” Kohanzadeh found that YU didn’t have the close-knit college community with which he was familiar.

Farber echoed that in his experience, “sometimes, YU feels like a commuter school. You have a vibrant student body but there isn’t such a strong sense of community.”

Kohanzadeh explained that through RAK, “we wanted to change this reality and connect our university campus internally. We also wanted to establish a warm, close-knit community with the remainder of the neighborhood.”

Both Kohanzadeh and Farber emphasized the importance of “randomness” in the acts of kindness organized by RAK. “The ‘random’ aspect is a call to action for all our members,” Kohanzadeh explained. “Kindness does not always require a direct or specific subject, or agenda. Random acts of kindness can be anything and be done anywhere by anyone. Our goal is to use a similar form of randomness to promote kindness that can be spontaneously manifested everywhere by anyone.”

Farber explained that RAK’s initiatives aren’t random to him -- “that’s the irony. They are random for the recipients of what we give out.”

Looking ahead, Farber expressed some apprehension about the future of the club. He expects involvement to be a challenge for RAK, especially if he is not at YU next year to steward its growth. He does, however, hope that RAK can continue to grow on the Wilf Campus and expand to “other campuses, in New York and farther,” including the Beren Campus.

If RAK seeks to forge ties between YU students and the community around them, the Jewish Home’s mission is to build a community YU students currently lack one. The Jewish Home, which is led and attended by YU students and alumni, is not officially affiliated with YU.

Farber, one of the students who spearheaded the Jewish Home’s initiation this year, described the movement as fulfilling the need, unserved by YU, for “informal version of religious life on campus.”

The Jewish Home seeks to offer “an alternative experiential outlet and catering to the needs of the demographic that would otherwise not attend extracurricular Jewish programming at university.” It does so through its primary program: Friday night prayer services that consist of “passionate singing, lively dancing, and inspiring short-thoughts from Rabbi Danieli,” according to the Jewish Home’s promotional flyer for potential sponsors.

Friday nights at the Jewish home have been attended by a range of 30 - 50, according to Farber, including a visit by Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies at YU.

Rabbi Gaby Danieli, spiritual leader of the Jewish Home, said that the Jewish Home services “lots of the chevre [who] need an alternative place to daven, have a warm, tasty Shabbat meal with friends, and be a part of a learning group.” The Jewish Home, he reflected, has been able “to create a micro-community that welcomes everyone.”

“I also believe lots of the chevre come because they feel accepted regardless of who they are,” Rabbi Danieli said.  “We give them authentic Judaism -- spirituality, but with a smile and hug and lots of simcha. It's the same cake that everyone else is serving, but we add sprinkles on top and chocolate syrup!” Rabbi Danieli, who received ordination from RIETS in 2014 is currently an instructor in the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies and in the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies. He previously served as assistant rabbi at the Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side.

Rabbi Danieli’s warmth and welcoming personality is among the foremost draws to the Jewish Home. “Gaby Danieli is what makes the Jewish Home have its special flavor,” Farber remarked. “He has a network of guys from IBC and Mechina who are very close with him. They don’t see a divide between student and teacher.”

Ari Drazin, a junior studying finance who frequents the Jewish Home, said that “it all starts with Rabbi Danieli, who has a way about him that makes everything so much fun and inspiring at the same time.” And what inspires Drazin the most about the Jewish Home, he said, is “ how it makes serving God so enjoyable. I always leave the Jewish Home not only having had a great time, but with a greater feeling of closeness to God than I had before.”

According to Rabbi Danieli, the idea of the Jewish Home has been in works for years dating back to when he was a student at YU (“it wasn't called the Jewish Home then,” he reminds us). In the past year, however, the Jewish Home “sprouted and blossomed to [include] a wider student body and community because the students themselves -- like Ilan [Farber] -- and other chevre and alumni of my IBC class have invested in it.”

Unaffiliated with Yeshiva University, funding can potentially be hard to come by. Despite this, Farber relates that current students, and especially alumni, are excited to donate to the cause they wish had been around when they studied at YU. Farber also noted that the Israeli restaurant Golan Heights has been particularly generous, sponsoring large quantities of food. Current students have also contributed on a more individual level by participating in the Jewish Home’s BYOB policy for the meal following the prayers.

Farber said that the Jewish Home is intentionally unaffiliated with Yeshiva University. “We don’t need that added pressure of YU telling us what to do,” he said. “We don’t need YU’s logo -- I don’t think that would be conducive or good for growth.” Farber also said that affiliating with Yeshiva University “makes it more organized; this is something that’s for the people, by the people, and there’s something about that that’s sweet.” Rabbi Danieli did not comment about the Jewish Home staying unaffiliated with YU.

Despite being unaffiliated with YU, the Jewish Home does characterize itself as “an alternate way to fostering a powerful and meaningful Yeshiva University experience.” This is perhaps in recognition that most of the Jewish Home’s constituents do have YU affiliation.

Looking to the future, Farber expressed more optimism for the Jewish Home than for RAK. “Involvement has never been an issue for the Jewish Home,” Farber said. He would like to see the principles of the Jewish Home extended even to Rabbi Danieli’s IBC classes, perhaps in the form of a class that would have class meetings in the more informal setting of Rabbi Danieli’s home.

Rabbi Danieli is hopeful that the Jewish Home will “continue to to give and provide what the chevre needs and wants -- to inspire and be inspired to have fun being Jewish, smile when we learn, and sing when we pray.”

The rise in popularity both of RAK and the Jewish Home seem to highlight a common thread. RAK is intentionally random and the Jewish Home is intentionally outside of the YU framework. As the two initiatives seek to create communities for YU students, they find it best to avoid structure.