When local colleges begin fall classes in a few weeks, there will be another resource on campus to help Jewish students connect with their heritage.
Aish HaTorah, an outreach program that was founded in Jerusalem in 1974 under Orthodox auspices, is expanding its network of college programs to include Pittsburgh. Rabbi Yaakov and Hannah Fleshel have been hired to reach out to local Jewish students. The couple ran a similar program through a different outreach organization - the Jewish Awareness Movement - for the last two years at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"Our goal is to meet students that have no background and that both Hillel and Chabad are not reaching," said Rabbi Fleshel.
To find such students, Fleshel plans to spend time at various hangouts on local campuses, informally interacting with students.
Although Aish HaTorah is an Orthodox organization, Fleshel said its mission is not to promote Orthodox observance, but rather, to give Jews a way of connecting with their heritage and its meaning.
"The biggest problem in America today is intermarriage and complete assimilation," said Fleshel. "We try to connect people who would intermarry to try to create a much higher level of Jewish identity."
For some people, that means explaining basic tenets of Judaism, or providing the opportunity to discuss the Jewish perspective on philosophical questions.
Others may be interested in Aish-sponsored trips to Israel or more formal classes about Judaism.
"We want to make a difference in people's lives," said Fleshel.
The Fleshels will be the first full-time Aish HaTorah representatives in Pittsburgh, but the organization has been offering programs for local college students since last year.
Rabbi Chaim Feld, an educator based in Cleveland's Aish HaTorah office, visited Pittsburgh weekly last year to run a leadership program, in which students agreed to attend classes and to participate in two traditional Shabbat experiences in exchange for a stipend.
Feld will continue to be involved in the leadership program.
"I'm committed to having a smooth transition," said Feld, who has worked closely with the Hillel Jewish University Center and will help Fleshel develop a similar working relationship.
In addition to the leadership program, the Fleshels will concentrate on other ways of reaching students and connecting them to the Jewish community.
"We see ourselves working with everyone here," said Fleshel. He stressed that Aish HaTorah does not aim to compete with other campus organizations, but, rather, to enhance existing programs.
Rabbi Fleshel, 32, studied history and religious studies at the University of Capetown in his native South Africa before moving to Israel to teach English. He eventually enrolled in the rabbinical school run by Aish HaTorah, and was ordained in 2003.
Hannah Fleshel, 29, was a Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow at the University of Missouri after completing her own degree at Stevens College in Missouri. The program, affiliated with the Hillel Foundation, stresses informal outreach methods, and the promotion of trips to Israel. After visiting Israel herself, she decided to stay on to study at a Jerusalem seminary. The San Diego native met her husband while both were working at Heritage House, a Jerusalem outreach center and hostel.
Part of the goal of the Aish program is to create personal relationships with students, said Rabbi Fleshel. "We're building a relationship to experience Judaism more practically; for people to understand what it means to be Jewish."