The couple, who relocated from Israel to University City this past August to spend a few years at Penn, serve as Torah educators of the Orthodox Union's Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, a program that's in place on 13 colleges throughout the country. As is the case at Penn, the program functions as a partnership between the O.U. and Hillel, and caters to Orthodox students.
The Friedmans — the second couple to serve in this role since the initiative started at Penn five years ago — are charged with facilitating high-level Jewish learning for Orthodox students who grew up attending yeshiva, and hope to continue Torah and Talmud study while pursuing a degree at a secular university.
But as the Friedmans tell it, that's just the beginning of a seven-day-a-week job, where the line between work and home life can be blurred; they live just a block off campus, and students aren't shy about knocking on their door and asking advice on everything from event planning to classes and even relationships.
The couple — in their second semester at Penn, and admittedly still getting to know the campus community — said they hope to be both friends and role models for students seeking to discover who they are, while negotiating their religious beliefs with all the experiences, possibilities and temptations that a university setting provides. Either one of the Friedmans is just as likely be found schmoozing in the kosher cafeteria as in their office.
"Our main goal is to be a presence on campus, to show a friendly face for modern Orthodoxy, to open our homes to students, to become part of their lives and to make them part of our life," said 25-year-old Limor Friedman, a native of Netivot, Israel.
"Our goal is not focusing on outreach, or to try and make people frummer than they are," she continued. "It's to meet students wherever they are — not where I want them to be."
Friedman, who holds a master's degree in English literature from Bar-Ilan University, teaches several noncredit courses at Hillel, including a biblical literature class that she gives in Hebrew. Five years ago, while working as a camp counselor in Indian Orchard, Pa., she met Teaneck, N.J., native Mordy Friedman, who was working toward his rabbinic ordination.
The couple moved to Israel, and both were teaching at Orthodox yeshivas when Mordy Friedman's childhood friend, Rabbi Yehuda Seif, a previous Torah educator at Penn, lobbied the two to take his and his wife's place. They eventually agreed to spend a few years at Penn before returning to the Jewish state.
The idea behind sending a couple to a university — modeled partly on the highly successful Chabad formula — is not only to help facilitate Jewish education, but to foster continuity for a segment of the populace that might not have had a great deal of exposure to the non-Jewish world.
"We can't just let students go to secular universities and say okay, good luck. We need to be there for them and with them," said 29-year-old Mordy Friedman, who holds a master's in medieval Jewish history, and is working toward a doctorate in Talmud.
The couple also sponsors a Sunday-night dinner and learning session that draws students from different backgrounds.