Leaving the bubble behind

Leaving the bubble behind

Nitzavim Fellowship prepares Orthodox high school graduates for secular college campuses

Rebecca Amar of Teaneck, far right, with her Nitzavim Fellowship group — Ezra Fisher, Mark Levy, Rebecca Brody, and Sara Ginsberg. Working together, they came up with Cooking Culture. (Kira Kletsky)
Rebecca Amar of Teaneck, far right, with her Nitzavim Fellowship group — Ezra Fisher, Mark Levy, Rebecca Brody, and Sara Ginsberg. Working together, they came up with Cooking Culture. (Kira Kletsky)

When Kayla Schachter of Bergenfield and Akiva Nelson of Teaneck begin at the University of Maryland in the fall, they will be prepared to respond to questions about Israel — hostile or just plain curious — thanks to the Nitzavim Fellowship, a program in Jerusalem geared to Orthodox gap-year students in Israel who are heading to secular college campuses.

“The Nitzavim Fellowship has given me tools and resources in order to answer any question Jews or non-Jews have about anything to do with Israel in a peaceful and knowledgeable way,” said Mr. Nelson, a graduate of Frisch who now is learning in Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem.

“I learned what I can expect on campus and how to better respond,” added Ms. Schachter, a Bruriah High School for Girls alumna finishing her gap year at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim seminary.

The fellowship is the latest offering from Jewish Year Abroad, an independent, privately funded nonprofit organization headed by Rabbi Adi Isaacs. It also runs Thrive Study Abroad, for Jewish semester-abroad college students at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, and Rimon Fellows, specifically for Orthodox semester-abroad college students at Hebrew University.

Nitzavim, under the directorship of Rabbi Isaacs’s brother Yair, accepted 70 students from 24 gap-year programs to attend 12 for-credit in-person and virtual classes at Hebrew University, covering topics such as Jewish leadership on college campuses, diverse expressions of Jewish identity, antisemitism, and Israel.

“The goal is preparing you to maintain the values you’ve grown up with during your college years,” Rena Zoldan, Nitzavim Fellowship’s director of marketing, said.

“When you’ve been in a modern Orthodox environment your whole life and you’re in Israel for the year and then continue on to a secular American college, you will not know what hit you. Jews aren’t loved, and religion is hard outside the bubble.

“Not only will you be challenged in everything you know and hold dear, but you will also encounter a lot of Jews who weren’t given the educational opportunities you were given. You’re going to hear remarks like, ‘Oh, you’re religious? What’s up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What about Shabbat?’ You will face antisemitism, misinformation, and apathy,” she said.

Akiva Nelson of Teaneck, center, is at the Nitzavim Project Showcase at Hebrew University. (Kira Kletsky)

“We give the fellows model lessons and experiences, for example role-playing as if the staff members are the secular college students and vice versa,” she continued. “We put them on the spot, giving hands-on tactical experience. We bring in politicians and speakers presenting opinions from every angle. Because you have to have the ability to stay strong and pass that strength to others.

“There is no lack of organizations on campus trying to empower Jewish students, but over 90 percent of Jewish students on campuses never walk through the doors of those organizations,” she concluded.

The fellows also worked in teams with mentors and influencers to create viable business plans for projects designed to foster meaningful impact, connections, and understanding on college campuses around issues of Judaism and Israel.

“The projects are innovative, on-the-ground, and peer-to-peer,” Ms. Zoldan said. “It’s not about a rabbi interacting with students but about students interacting with their dormmate or lab partner.”

Ms. Schachter’s group of three fellows devised “How Do You Jew?” for their project. This will be a campaign advertised on campus through flyers with a QR code that leads to an Instagram page showcasing videos about how different types of Jews practice their faith.

“The idea is to bridge gaps among affiliations, because the Jewish world is very divided,” she said.

Mr. Nelson’s group of three came up with Rosh Chodesh Chagiga, a monthly event with live music meant to attract and unite affiliated and nonaffiliated Jews on campus. The first event is planned to take place during Sukkot.

Before moving to Teaneck for high school, Mr. Nelson grew up in Memphis. From fifth to eighth grades he was a student at a nondenominational prep school, “where many people never saw an Orthodox Jew before, so I was always answering questions.”

From left, Bruriah graduates Rikki Zagelbaum of Monsey, Shoshi Cantor of Hillside, and Kayla Schachter of Bergenfeld with their Nitzavim project poster. (Kira Kletsky)

At Frisch, he founded an antiracism club and brought in speakers to address the student body on this topic. His experience as a Nitzavim Fellow, he said, “has given me more tools to do what I wanted to do since fifth grade: uniting Jews and making a difference.” He’ll be part of the University of Maryland’s Civicus freshman leadership development program.

Each Nitzavim team project receives seed money from the fellowship’s cofounder and major financial supporter, the 7 Schwartz Brothers Leadership Trust, established by former Elmhurst Dairy owner Henry Schwartz.

“The 7 Schwartz Brothers are passionate about encouraging every Jewish student to spend a semester or gap-year in Israel, learning the tools for combatting antisemitism and apathy back on college campuses,” Ms. Zoldan said.

The fellows had an opportunity to hear a message from Mr. Schwartz at the year-end Project Showcase on the Hebrew University campus, where six of the teams vied for cash prizes in a “Shark Tank” type competition.

“It was powerful to see so many people believe in us and invest in our future,” Mr. Nelson said. “It was powerful to see 70 kids united in wanting to make a difference. We can do it as long as we know we can.”

Rebecca Amar of Teaneck, a Frisch graduate studying at Midreshet Torah v’Avodah in Jerusalem and heading to SUNY Binghamton in the fall, said that a Nitzavim Fellow from last year “told me that it enhanced her first year of college, so I looked into it some more.

“I wanted to make the most of this year in Israel and take advantage of every opportunity.”

“Nitzavim” is Hebrew plural for “standing up,” and Ms. Amar said the name is apt.

“I felt we got the tools to stand up for the values and things we’ve been taught our whole lives, and it’s also been a great opportunity to meet new people who share my values and were willing to spend Fridays, our only day off, in this great program,” she said.

Ms. Amar was full of praise for the teachers, including Rabbi Akiva Gersh and the Isaacs brothers. “I’ve really seen that education is the most important thing,” she said. “People with negative ideas about Jews and Israel are usually coming from a place where they just lack knowledge and information, so if we have the knowledge, we can really make a difference.”

Her group of five developed a plan for a monthly cooking class intended to engage disconnected Jews with Jewish culture through its classic cuisine. “What college student doesn’t like free food and a social event?” she asked rhetorically.

Mr. Nelson said he was grateful that “Rav Adi and Yair Isaacs were motivated to fill a very big need.

“I always thought someone needed to do something like this, and I couldn’t believe someone actually did.”

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