For the week ending 20 February 2016 / 11 Adar I 5776

Ethan Illfelder

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
Library Library Library

Age: 24

Riverdale, Bronx, NY

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI): BS/MS Quantitative Finance and Risk Analysis (QFRA)

As his degree suggests, Ethan knows a bit more about numbers than the average sociology major. With that in mind it’s probably not surprising that he was drawn to explore Judaism, which includes in its basic text — The Book of Numbers.

Ethan was brought up in a Reform family in Riverdale, New York. Although Riverdale has a thriving Orthodox community, he was never exposed to it or to the wonders of Judaism before college. A bright student, he attended the top academic high school in New York City — Stuyvesant.

Ethan chose to go to RPI in Troy, NY, for university studies. It is one of the best schools in the States for engineering, math and sciences. He ended up majoring in QFRA — a type of applied mathematics.

While Troy, NY, is not known for its vibrant Jewish community, RPI has a Jewish student population that consists of at least 10-15% self-identifying Jews (500-750). Ethan found himself looking for a community of students that he could be part of, and decided to join the Hillel on campus. During the preceding number of years before he joined, Hillel had fallen into decline, with fiscal mismanagement, lackluster attendance for religious services and an unengaged community. Ethan decided to do something about it.

The Sefer HaChinuch says that mitzvot and aveirot have an amazing effect on the psyche of a Jew. If one forces a tzadik to do even one aveira daily, he will become a rasha. Conversely, if one were to force a rasha to do even one mitzvah daily, he will eventually become a tzadik. This is a consequence of the Jews accepting the Torah by saying na’aseh v’nishmah — “we will do and we will hear”. By “doing”, we understand what we are doing, we come to appreciate it and it becomes a part of us — a process by which the intellect is bypassed, and yet is altered. If this is true for a rasha, it would all the more so be true for a bai’noni (“average” person, neither a tzadik nor a rasha) or a tinok she’nishba (one who is non-observant due to being raised without a Torah education).

Ethan revitalized the Hillel at RPI. He first became its treasurer, and then a year later was elected to be the president. The response was tremendous and encouraging. There were more than fifty students coming to Shabbat dinners. This was followed by offering classes by local rabbis, and even starting a “meals on wheels” Shabbat program for the elderly and disadvantaged Jews in Troy. The Hillel had almost no support from the national Hillel organization, and the local community of Troy was struggling to maintain its own few institutions. Hillel needed money, and Ethan rose to the cause. He incorporated the Hillel, and then obtained a US tax-exempt 501 c 3 status for the organization. As an attorney who has worked on behalf of many applications for this status, I can attest that the IRS procedure is long and arduous, and filled with many disappointments. Ethan did it himself without a lawyer. He then began to raise money for Hillel to fund the programs that he started. By the time he graduated, the Hillel was running a budget in the black and was a recognized force on campus. He got RPI to help fund a kosher-meal plan with reliable kashrut supervision, and even received help from them to provide kosher l’pesach meals for students who wanted them. By this time, Ethan was attending the Shabbat Minyan on campus, and was on the kosher-meal plan. The Chinuch’s words were proven true again.

Word of Ethan’s success reached the ear of Rabbi Jeff Surowitz, the Ohr Somayach staff member who serves as recruiter for our JInternship program in Jerusalem. Jeff pursued Ethan until he agreed to come on the program after graduation. He acquired an internship at JVP Venture Capital Fund as an analyst. Ethan loves his work evaluating hundreds of Israeli hi-tech start-ups to determine which ones the company should fund.

Ethan lives on campus at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and attends three hours of classes every evening after work. Of his experience at Ohr Somayach Ethan says, “It has been a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to a different facet of Judaism, and while my background was not shared by many of those whom I’m around, it is comforting to be around so many welcoming and friendly people. I am truly glad to be able to share my time here and learn in so many different directions.”

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