Eve Litvak of Fair Lawn went to Israel on a 10-day Birthright trip in the winter of 2013. After graduating from Brandeis University this May, she headed back to the Jewish homeland for an 18-day identity-building experience sponsored by Meor ((Illumination), a privately funded nonprofit Orthodox organization that hones future Jewish leaders at 21 universities and at an alumni center in Manhattan.
“I really wanted to find my way to Israel for the summer of 2016 to figure out what the country means to me and work towards understanding my relationship with the land,” Ms. Litvak said. “Meor provided an opportunity to go and offered a very unique lens on being in Israel.”
Ms. Litvak was one of 145 students participating in the journey; they came from Boston University, Emory, George Washington, Harvard, Brandeis, Cornell, NYU, Temple, Rutgers, Binghamton, the University of Maryland, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“The students are handpicked for their interest in growth, learning, and connecting,” Adar Breuer, Meor’s director of operations and Israel trips, said. Members of Meor’s on-campus staff, who know the students, invite some of them to apply, based on their assessment of the students’ interests, and their readiness to learn. A formal application and interview process follows.
“Our goal is to show the students how relevant Israel is, and to give them inspiration,” Ms. Breuer said. “Some of them went on the Meor Poland trip in the winter, and going to Israel in the summer is a nice way of bringing it all together.”
Headquartered in Jerusalem, Meor offers classes in Judaic texts to interested Jewish students at some of the top American campuses, according Debra Kodish, Meor’s executive vice president. “Meor aims to inspire, educate, and empower the next generation of Jewish leaders,” she said.
Meor Israel, which is not free like Birthright but can offer subsidies to students who need them, has an itinerary that includes classes on such topics as Jewish leadership, relationships, and philosophy, in addition to the historical background of significant places participants later tour.
“We hope that our students experience the relevance of Jewish wisdom to their everyday lives, the excitement of Jewish learning, and the passion of our rich heritage,” said Meor’s Israel educational director, Rabbi Yehoshua Styne. (Rabbi Styne also teaches at Machon Shlomo, an Orthodox men’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. Most of the yeshiva’s students are formerly unconnected Jews from the English-speaking world.)
“We achieve this through a combination of engaging classes from expert teachers, lively interactive questioning and discussion, and exposure to the special sites of Israel. We see each student as an individual with his or her own unique expression of and connection to Judaism. With this in mind, we strive to design a program that allows for exposure to all aspects of our tradition; we work hard to get to know each individual and address their questions and topics of interest.”
Julianne Goodman of Wyckoff, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, said that she signed up for the tour because she felt her Jewish ties loosening when she was away at college. When she was younger, she attended religious school and confirmation class at Temple Beth Rishon.
“So much of my connection to Judaism has been through my family,” she said. “However, in college, my parents are not there to tell me to go to temple or seders or Sabbath dinners; it’s just me and my self-discipline. I had let something so special to me slowly slip away. I decided to participate in the Meor trip to reconnect to my Jewish identity and find a Jewish community in a meaningful way.”
She said that this goal was met. “I now have a significantly better understanding of Judaism and Jewish values. I have found and created meaning in being Jewish. The biggest thing is that I can now be Jewish for myself, not just for my family.”
Both Ms. Litvak and Ms. Goodman mentioned spending Shabbat in Jerusalem as a highlight of their time in Israel.
“One week, we celebrated the Sabbath at the Kotel,” Ms. Goodman said, referring to the Western Wall of the ancient Second Temple compound built by Herod the Great.
“The sermon was conducted on a gorgeous balcony that overlooked the Kotel and then we went down to the Kotel for the prayers. All the women were dancing, singing, chanting, and holding hands in large circles. It was incredible. I had never felt so connected to people that I had never met before. You even had Israeli soldiers with large guns strapped to their backs joining in and dancing. I finally understood the power of Judaism and the Jewish people.”
At the same time, it was also at the Kotel that she experienced a scary moment when a firework went off.
“Most people did not see it, only heard it,” Ms. Goodman said. “Everyone crouched down and took cover. It was a rude awakening to the lifestyle of always being in fear. I was surprised that there can be so much hate in a country that is so rich in culture and love.”
Ms. Litvak was disappointed to observe that “whether by ethnicity or religion, towns and cities are really noticeably divided; there isn’t as much coexistence as I had imagined.”
Seeing different facets of Israel, however, made an overall positive impact in terms of personal growth.
“I can now, undoubtedly, say that I am Jewish,” said Ms. Litvak, who did not have any formal Jewish education but has been active in Judges for Israel, a Brandeis Israeli culture club, Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Europe, and Every Day Anti-Semitism. “Previously, I would say I am culturally or ethnically ‘Jew-ish,’ but after this program, I know 100 percent that there is nothing not Jewish about me.
“Learning about Judaism through Meor, I also recognized that the beliefs and values I already held are inherently Jewish, despite not having learned them at a Jewish day school,” she continued.
“Moreover, I really began to understand who is a Jew and what it means to be Jewish. I always made the joke that to be a Jew, you must suffer. Jewish history is a bowl full of tragedy, observance is peppered with fasts, and the oil and vinegar of a Jew is memory. However, the piece I was missing is that the bowl that holds the tumultuous salad together is itself comprised of appreciation. This is the most important ingredient of Jewishness.
“I learned on this trip that being Jewish is not about suffering, but it is about celebrating struggle and opposition, because that which comes out of such trial and tribulation is much greater for overcoming, being resilient, and persevering.”
Ms. Kodish said participants in the trips typically “return home inspired to seek out additional Jewish engagement opportunities and ways to connect to Israel.”
That is the case for Madeline Lefkowitz of Teaneck, a student at Rutgers University. “Meor Israel helped me gain a better understanding of Judaism, Israel, and Jewish connection,” she said. “I am so thankful for this experience and for the gift of finally understanding why it is so special to be Jewish. Moving forward, I am going to try to live every day with meaning. To me, that means incorporating Judaism into everything I do.”
Other Bergen County participants in Meor Israel were William Fried of Englewood and Harvard, Dillon Japko of Upper Saddle River and Binghamton, and Jake Steiner of Montvale and the University of Maryland.