The recent winter intersession at Yeshiva University found two groups of select undergraduates taking part in weeklong programs on opposite sides of the world.
A dozen students joined “Discovering Innovation in the Start-Up Nation,” a behind-the-scenes look at pioneering companies in Israel, while 14 others were in the Midwest on the annual “Jewish Life Coast to Coast” service learning and experiential education mission, working on communal projects in Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Columbus.
“Discovering Innovation in the Start-Up Nation” brought participants to more than 15 companies, organizations, and labs that are advancing the fields of medicine, finance, artificial intelligence, security, agricultural development, and disability inclusion, including Google, WeWork, Amazon R&D, CheckPoint, Vayyar, Similar Web, Elfi-Tech, Fortissimo Capital, OurCrowd, and accessibleGO.
About 80 percent of the companies on the itinerary are led or staffed by YU alumni now living in Israel.
“The goal of this trip was to expose the students to Israeli innovation on a grand scale so that they gain a better understanding of our nation’s storied tenacity and incomparable achievements, and become inspired to actualize their own potentials,” said Stephanie Strauss, the executive director of Yeshiva University in Israel. “They came to explore and be inspired by Israeli innovation and heard from people who gave them wonderful insights about how they might be able to be part of this personally.”
Other trip highlights included a meeting at Jerusalem-based Hometalk, an internationally popular online platform for sharing home-improvement tips; a visit to Bar-Ilan University’s Ocular Motor and Visual Perception Laboratory; a tour of the Zomet Institute, a nonprofit public research institute dedicated to seamlessly merging Jewish law with modern life via technology, and a briefing from the IDF’s elite cyber security unit.
The participants also attended lectures on Jewish business ethics and explored the interplay between technological advancement and Jewish law. And they went home with lots of business cards.
“The trip showed me the booming Israeli technology industry and the inspiring people behind it,” said Max Gruber of Teaneck, 20. “Seeing YU graduates making their dream come true gave me the confidence that I can follow mine and be successful in doing so.”
Aryeh Klein of New Hempstead, N.Y., 21, said that as a computer science major at YU, “this trip showed me that the high-tech industry in Israel is both thriving and expanding, causing me to realize that working in this field in Israel is a real possibility containing many career opportunities.”
The students who participated in the Midwest edition of “Jewish Life Coast to Coast” came away with a deeper understanding of Jewish communities outside the New York area, through informative meetings, hands-on volunteering, and implementation of educational programs in schools, synagogues, and community centers.
“Providing our students with the opportunity to embed themselves in big and small Jewish communities across the Midwest and engage with local rabbis, educators, and communal leaders allowed them to explore the region’s rich Jewish history and gain a better understanding of the personalities and challenges that have shaped each of these unique Jewish communities,” Talia Molotsky, YU’s student life coordinator, said.
“The experience will also challenge them to take on leadership roles and strengthen their commitments to Jewish life,” she added.
Highlights of that program included meetings with executive staff members from the Jewish Federation of Kansas City, the JCC of Milwaukee, and a philanthropic foundation in Columbus; a private audience with Rabbi Benzion Twerski and Rabbi Chaim Twerski, the third and fourth generations of the famed Twerski family to lead Congregation Beth Jehudah of Milwaukee; and a volunteer initiative focused on collecting and sorting clothing donations for the poor in Chicago.
“Engaging with Jewish communities in the Midwest opened our students to the diversity and vibrancy that permeates Jewish life outside the New York metropolitan area and helped them see that there are always opportunities to make a difference no matter where they go, whether around the corner, across the country or on the other side of the world,” Rabbi Ari Sytner, YU’s director of community initiatives, said.
“It is our hope that the students internalize these real-life lessons about community, philanthropy, and Jewish education, step up as the young Jewish leaders their local Jewish communities need, and employ their unique talents and abilities to shape the Jewish communal landscape,” he continued.
Miriam Schloss of Bergenfield, 19, said she enjoyed “listening to community leaders describe the wonderful communities that they have dedicated themselves to build and sustain.”
However, she added, “While it was empowering to meet people who are impacting the Jewish community so greatly, the highlights of my trip were the moments that I spent with my peers. The commitment to making an impact in our current and future communities brought us closer together than I thought would be possible in a week.”
Ms. Schloss said the eight-day trip included opportunities to give informal educational sessions and to help out in local Jewish charitable organizations, but also provided time for fun activities such as playing broomball on a frozen lake.
“This experience created a group of friends that is anchored by its passion for leaving its mark on Jewish communal life,” she said.