Think of Isla Vista on a Friday night, and you’ll probably conjure images of loud keg parties with little intellectual stimulation to offer. Think Judaism and you might imagine an old, bearded rabbi with a little more intellectual stimulation than you’re willing to handle. These two things seem to have nothing in common, but the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) seeks to bridge the gap between modern youth culture and Judaism. That is why every Friday night, a rather large group of students assembles at the home of Rabbi Mitch Goldstein, where he, his wife, Chana, and their son Moshe offer a festive atmosphere along with something meaningful that students can take home with them.
JAM was started at UCLA in 1996. Since then, chapters have been established at UC San Diego, CSU Northridge, USC, and, of course, UC Santa Barbara. Essentially an on-campus club, JAM employs younger couples to reach out to Jewish students in order to offer Judaism that is relevant to their lives by providing weekly dinners and services and by leading subsidized trips. Rabbi Tzvi Lewis and his wife, Devorah-also members of JAM’s supportive staff-offer an intimate family Shabbat experience every week with their children Chana Rivka and Yaakov, as well as a very popular weekly challah baking event.
Friday night is the beginning of Shabbat-the Jewish Sabbath-and as the sun sinks in the sky, preparations are made for a meal and services. rabbi Mitch, as he is known to students, keeps the atmosphere light with his quick wit and Ali G English accent. “When people think of a rabbi, they think of unapproachable, old, and boring,” he said. “They say, ‘What does this have to do with my life?’ We try to make it energetic-something that speaks to them. Some people don’t know much about Judaism, so we can show what it’s all about.” Rabbi Mitch has two rules at his Shabbat services: “One, be chilled, and two, if you don’t know the words to the songs, then you can hum along.”
The students who know him tend to enjoy his relevant approach. “Rabbi Mitch doesn’t give off an elite vibe,” said Santa Barbara City College student Ben Muller. “His vibe is very down to earth and welcoming. He’s really good at listening, and that’s a great thing. A lot of other rabbis don’t listen as well.” Not liking to be preachy, Rabbi Mitch has never considered himself a pulpit rabbi. Anyone who has been to his house on a Friday night knows that it’s as fun as any I.V. party, but with a happier feel to it. “I’ve seen some of the gnarliest parties in I.V.,” said Rabbi Mitch, “and after a year and a half here, I still think we come out on top. The reason why people love it so much is that it’s a fun atmosphere.”
The rabbi’s wife, Chana, a law graduate from Nottingham University in the U.K., also takes an active role in the gatherings, making sure that everyone in the usually large group of students who show up each Friday night feels welcome. “This is not a student center,” she said, “There’s an excellent student center called Hillel. This is our home, and we serve a family meal. Just like I’d cook a Friday night meal for five people, I’ll do that for 45, and serve them on fine china.” At some point during the meal, after everyone has shared something about themselves and what they are grateful for, Rabbi Mitch begins speaking. His audience listens with rapt attention as he elaborates on enjoying life, giving it meaning, and doing all that you are capable of doing-not just for the sake of consumption, but to be of good to everyone. “I like to think that everyone leaves here full every week,” he said, “not just from the food, but with wisdom they can use as well.”
Though the most regular activities the Goldsteins engage in are Shabbat dinners, semi-regular barbeques, and social gatherings, trips to New York, London, and Israel are a main part of the services offered by JAM. These trips, not merely sightseeing tours, are an effort to connect students to their Jewish roots by offering classes and seminars and allowing students to experience life in Jewish communities. The classes include “How to Get the Most Out of Relationships and Dating,” “The Keys to Happiness,” and “The Deeper Meanings of Judaism,” among others. “It’s ancient wisdom for modern people,” said Rabbi Mitch.
Each trip has a unique structure. In New York, students stay in a five-star hotel, visit the diamond district, Jewish Brooklyn, the Empire State Building, and Ellis Island; shop on 5th Avenue, and visit the Jewish community in Monsey, New Jersey, for Shabbat, as well as hearing a live performance by Rav Shmuel, a Hassidic rabbi who is also one of the East Village’s hottest weekend acts. Students stay with Jewish families in London and venture downtown to see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the London Eye and go shopping at Harrods. The Israel trip has students staying in various hotels and visiting sites of the highest cultural and religious significance, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the last remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 67 ce. They also visit Tel Aviv, Hebron, and the Dead Sea, incorporating rappelling, rafting, and camel riding into these travels. Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, a musician and UCSB alumnus, gives a concert as well. All of these trips are subsidized by JAM, and are, in the words of Rabbi Mitch, “ridiculously cheap.”
Students tend to love the trips. “It was such an unforgettable, fun experience in which we got to bond with an amazing group of people, learn from each other, and get in touch with our inner spirituality,” said UCSB student Deborah Svidler of her trip to New York this December. “We all came back with 30 new friends and lots of wonderful memories that will stay forever.”
Rabbi Mitch and Chana do a lot for the student community, and give them something it’s sometimes difficult to find in college-fulfilling fun. “I have the ultimate job, which is to meet cool students and have fun, sharing some wisdom on the side,” said Rabbi Mitch. “We don’t just love our jobs, we love our students-we’re committed to them.” Many of the students feel that devotion and know they always have someone to turn to. “If it wasn’t for JAM and the Goldsteins I would have left UCSB a long time ago,” said Erica Schwartz.
JAM works very hard at fundraising, but the popularity of the program has current funding stretched to its limits. Currently, all JAM Chapters are funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, but the UCSB branch seeks local funding to continue doing great work in the community. “I was at Shabbat one week, and so many people came there was not enough space or food,” said Kim Ravenscroft, a City College student. “JAM really needs the support of the local community to continue their amazing work.”
To contact JAM and Rabbi Mitch Goldstein, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact by mail at 6501 Trigo Road, Apt. 1, Goleta, CA 93117.