Every year, David Spiro, a senior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, looks forward to having dinner there with Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, where Spiro grew up and celebrated becoming a bar mitzva.
“We always go the Cottage Inn, and he goes around the table and asks each individual, ‘What are you doing in school?’ and then we talk about contemporary news events,” said Spiro. “He always tries to get a gauge on the campus and…how the younger generation perceives what’s going on in the world.”
Spiro and his fellow Wolverines aren’t the only college kids to get a visit from the rabbi. Every year, Kulwin visits children of temple members at colleges with a critical mass of Jewish kids, including Indiana University, University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, Penn State, Syracuse, Bucknell, Rutgers, and Princeton.
This year, he will visit the University of Maryland and University of Delaware for the first time.
He also went to the University of California-Berkeley this year — and for just one student. Congregants forgave the exception: he visited his own son.
Kulwin said he embarks on his travels to maintain ties with students at an age where they are often not engaging with the Jewish world.
“Because I’m able to maintain ties over the course of the year, there’s a different dynamic,” he said in a phone interview shortly after returning from a Midwest jaunt that included the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “Students often e-mail me about paper topics in Jewish studies or for different kinds of advice. I can think of a couple of situations where a kid was going through something particularly challenging and turned to me in a way they otherwise might not have. And I get to spend time encouraging students to go on Birthright Israel and study abroad in Israel.”
He said, “The mere fact that I’m there is Jewish reinforcement.”
He finds the conversations with students “fascinating.”
“What’s happening on campus is not part of my day-to-day life, though it is important to the Jewish community and our families,” said Kulwin. “I’m interested in the political issues that present themselves to our kids and what concerns they have, from a Jewish point of view or any other.”
Some schools can be more politically charged than others around issues like Israel. Michigan, with its large Arab-American population from the Detroit suburbs, for example, has a long history of political engagement.
Kulwin logs 6,000-8,000 driving and flying miles each year in visits to about a dozen schools. The cost comes from the synagogue’s annual budget.
‘All his children’
Parents are thrilled by his visits.
Susy Spiro, David’s mother, said, “What rabbi goes to colleges and takes kids out to dinner? It just shows the kids what a close community we have, and they know the rabbi cares enough to take time from his busy schedule to spend time with them.”
Lori Schlanger of Short Hills was at first shocked to learn about the visits and her children’s interest (she has three, the youngest two at the University of Michigan, the eldest a recent graduate).
“We weren’t all that involved — we are the kind of Jews who only went for the High Holy Days,” she said. “But my kids jumped at the chance to have dinner with the rabbi. Now my kids feel very close to him. And I love the fact they are connecting with somebody Jewish.”
“It’s so important for our kids during these years that they are not so in touch with the temple and with Judaism; this keeps them in touch,” said Nurit Gans, whose son, Asaf, attends Penn State.
Aliza Roth, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, had dinner with Kulwin on his recent trip. Her mother, Ginny, also appreciates what it does for the parents. “It means the world to us and to our kids. At a time when parents are not that involved in synagogue life, he e-mails them about his visit to their children, and it keeps them connected.”
Students like the visits from home.
Mara Schlanger, a University of Michigan student, said she didn’t know what to expect the first time she joined Kulwin at the Cottage Inn. She didn’t know many of the other TBA kids attending the school and hadn’t spent much time with the rabbi recently. “Dinner turned out to be a comforting taste of home,” she said. “I got the same sense of relief seeing him as I would my parents, friends, or anyone I was close with in New Jersey. It was comforting knowing that I was in the presence of someone that I’ve had a relationship with since childhood.”
She also described how the rabbi manages to put the students at ease, in part by telling the waitress, “to bring us anything we wanted, because we were ‘all his children,’” she said. “Other diners must have thought we were celebrating a birthday because of the high levels of spirit and energy at the table,” said Schlanger. “It was amazing how interested Rabbi Kulwin was in all of our lives — conversations ranged from dorm life, to classes, to academic organizations, to the social scene, sports, food, friends — you name it.
“Of course, our relationship to Judaism on campus was brought up, but Rabbi Kulwin never made the conversation about what we should or shouldn’t be doing, rather how or if we were integrating it into our college life.”
Aliza Roth acknowledged the lasting impact of the visits.
“At this age, being in college, away from the temple and religion as a whole, it’s sometimes hard to want to go back to services,” she said. “But when he comes, it’s a little reminder, and maybe I’ll stop by when I come home.”
The whole endeavor came about through happenstance, when Kulwin’s father moved from Florida to Ann Arbor to be with Kulwin’s sister. When the rabbi visited the first time about 13 years ago, he took a group of TBA kids out to dinner. After a few years of such visits, he said, “I thought, ‘Gee I really ought to do this at other schools, too.’”
He gets as much as he gives, he said. Born and raised in Champaign, Ill., he misses the fabric of a university town.
“You’re just exposed to things there that you aren’t elsewhere.” And, he added, “It’s fun.”