MEOR Blog

Insight. Impact. Inspiration. Illumination.

MEOR news, events, campus happenings, student highlights, and so much more...

Addy Davidoff, Cornell University

Born and raised in Ithaca, NY, I grew up secular, attending public school and marinating a very negative view of Judaism. When I arrived at Cornell, I threw myself into social justice causes and was elected to the Educational Policy Committee on campus.

It wasn’t until my junior year that I decided to take part in Jewish life on campus. My very first experience was a MEOR-affiliated trip to Israel, where I met Rabbi Harkavy, a sensitive, sophisticated and incredibly deep educator.

When I returned from the Israel trip, I started attending MEOR Maimonides classes and later joined MEOR’s Vision trip to Israel. For me, MEOR represented my first opportunity to relate to Judaism in a positive light. I was engaging with my Judaism on a level that was deep, meaningful and challenging.

After Cornell I worked in D.C. on film production, but eventually came back to Israel. I now work for a hi-tech company in Jerusalem and attend MEOR classes weekly. I have found that MEOR has been an incredible support system for me here. It has transformed my life and become my family. The connection I feel to Judaism and the Land of Israel is a credit to the learning and growth that took place during my time with MEOR.

Class of 2015, Bachelors in Social Justice and Film

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I See You

Precipitating the unbearable suffering and inhumane slavery the Jews endured in Egypt was a spiritual oppression, described by our sages as a state in which the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people were closed. The instant gratification rampant in Egypt somewhat blurred their vision from noticing each other's plight and calloused their hearts from feeling each other's pain.

As a young adult, Moshe broke this pattern when he emerged from the palace of Pharoh to ‘see’ his brothers' suffering. He put his royal dealings aside and took notice of his brothers' suffering and grieved with them. The exile began when our eyes and hearts were closed. The process of salvation began when one man put his own business aside to hold the downtrodden in his heart.

The Midrash teaches us that at that moment God said, "Just as Moshe put aside his royal business to grieve and care for his brethren, I will also put My business aside and come down to bring My children out of slavery and into ultimate freedom."

In our lives, there are countless opportunities to put our dealings aside and take notice of those around us - to relate to ourselves and our loved ones in ways that foster a felt sense of being seen and held.

If we take advantage of these opportunities, we may merit to lead a life of inner strength, connection, and service.

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Chanukah and Glorifying War

Bastille Day,
The 4th of July,
Cinco de Mayo...

Holidays often commemorate the start, end, or bloodiest day of a violent war.
What about Chanukah, which starts on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev? What clash against our foes—the Syrian Greeks and Hellenized Jews—was won by the Maccabees that day?

The truth is, on the 25th of Kislev, no battles were won. No treaties were signed. No buildings were stormed. It is actually the day AFTER a battle was won (the battle for control of the Temple). It was the first day we returned to business-as-usual in the Temple, rededicating resources towards peacetime goals.

That is why the holiday is called “Chanukah,” a word which means “dedication”, and is also an abbreviation of “Chanu Chof Hey,” which means “They rested on the 25th.”

When our sages created Chanukah, they didn’t want us to celebrate war. They wanted us to be inspired to celebrate living, hopefully in peace, dedicated to the Jewish ideals we know are worth fighting for.

Happy Chanukah!

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Will Eastman, Rutgers University

I was born and raised in Central New Jersey in a traditional Jewish home. My beloved grandmother instilled a strong sense of Jewish pride in me from a young age, but it wasn’t until I connected with MEOR-RJX in college that I delved into my Judaism in a deep and meaningful way.

I learned about MEOR from Rabbi Goldberg during a chance encounter at the Rutgers Student Center and joined his Maimonides class on campus that first year. I found MEOR to be an exceptionally warm and inviting place, my family on campus. Rabbi Goldberg, and his Co-Director Rabbi Grossman, always encouraged me to ask questions, think critically and showed respect for differing viewpoints.

Participating in MEOR programs became a theme of my college experience. In my second year, I went to Israel with MEOR, and during my final year, I joined the Sinai Scholars program.

My MEOR experiences taught me that Jewish values are relevant to the modern day, to my life, right now. I think about my responsibility to give charity and help others as often as possible, and I try to infuse my life with spiritual purpose. The classes and programming provided me with the tools to build a life in which every thought, action, and event has great value and significance.

To this day, I know I can always count on Rabbis Goldberg and Grossman for advice and guidance.

Class of 2012, Bachelors in Political Science

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Valeria Berlfein, Drexel University

Though I was born in Argentina, I finished high school in Mexico. We moved around a lot throughout my childhood, which made finding Jewish schools difficult.
As a result, my family played the lead role in my Jewish education and the development of my Jewish identity. We were traditional-- celebrating the holidays, traveling to Israel whenever possible, and remaining active in the local synagogue, wherever it was that we were living.

I heard about MEOR during the very first week of my freshman year at Drexel. I met Rabbi Kay after a Shabbat dinner, and he convinced me to participate in the Maimonides course during my first semester. I really enjoyed the depth of learning, broadening my Jewish knowledge base, and gaining exposure to so many new and different aspects of Judaism. MEOR changed my university experience for the better by giving me the opportunity to strengthen my Jewish identity.

By taking part in MEOR programming, I am surrounded by like-minded students who are all interested in learning about Judaism and Jewish life. I am so thankful for my time with MEOR, I have found meaning within my Judaism, and I know that it is just the beginning of my Jewish growth.

Class of 2018, Bachelors of Science in Bio Medical Engineering

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Blake Engelhard, University of Pennsylvania

Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, I grew up in a traditionally Jewish home. We attended synagogue a few times a year and spent time with my grandparents during the High Holidays. Throughout my childhood, my parents stressed the importance of family and Jewish community.

When it was time to choose an undergraduate program, I decided on the University of Pennsylvania because I wanted both challenging academics and an engaging social life. During my sophomore year, I joined a program that connected the Greek life on campus with the campus Hillel. It was through that program that I first heard about MEOR. By the time senior year rolled around, I had become close with Rabbi Lynn, and we started learning together.

During winter break that year, I participated in the MEOR Poland trip with my brother, who had already graduated. It was an incredible experience in its own right, but it was particularly moving to share it with a sibling. When we returned from Poland, I continued learning with Rabbi Lynn, and after graduation, I participated in MEOR's Israel trip.

The trip really helped me clarify the most inspirational aspects of my learning, providing me with a clearer understanding of how I could make Judaism a truly meaningful part of my life. Inspired by the lessons I learned at MEOR, I founded “necter.social,” a platform to help people give to each other more productively. MEOR has completely redefined my appreciation of life and has helped me recognize my unique role in the world.

Class of 2015 Business Major

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Alex Perilstein, Cornell University

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a conservative Jewish home. Though I attended Hebrew school as a kid, frequented synagogue on the holidays, and grew up as a culturally proud Jew, I didn’t quite know where Judaism fit into my life.

I was involved in Jewish life throughout my time at Cornell but only became involved in MEOR during my senior year. I was intrigued by the high level of learning and the strong intellectual approach. The one on one learning elevated my understanding of Torah and Judaism. Judaism was no longer a cultural identity for me but something bigger, something to implement into my daily life.

After Cornell, I moved back to Philadelphia and continued to stay engaged and connected to MEOR and my Jewish learning. I joined the MEOR Vision trip to Israel which really cemented everything I had learned until that point. I made life-long connections with my fellow participants and teachers, namely Rabbi Styne.

I am now studying law at New York University and am very grateful to MEOR for instilling in me a heightened sense of self, a strong Jewish background, and the tools to live a productive and growth-oriented Jewish life.

Class of 2011, Bachelor of Science, Industrial & Labor Relations

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Adar Morag, Emory University

I was born and raised in Boca Raton, Florida. My parents are Israeli, so my first language has always been Hebrew. Growing up in traditional Sephardic home, the highlight was when my family shared meals for Shabbat and holidays. My parents also ensured that we traveled to Israel as frequently as possible to visit our extended family. Those trips, along with the amazing summers at Camp Judaea, kept me connected to my roots from a cultural standpoint. It wasn’t until I connected with MEOR in college that I learned about those roots through the lens of Judaism.

I heard about MEOR during my first year at Emory from Rabbi Fleshel, and joined his Maimonides class on campus that semester. I found MEOR to be an exceptionally warm and inviting place. Rabbi Fleshel and his wonderful wife Hannah opened their home to me, my friends, and so many other students for classes, holiday meals, challah bakes, Jewish life and Israel-themed events, and beautiful Shabbat dinners.

My MEOR experiences taught me that being Jewish is not simply a cultural identity but a national one steeped in beautiful and longstanding traditions. MEOR also opened the door to a lifetime of inspiration, helping me imbue my everyday life with deeper meaning and purpose. The classes and programming provided me with the tools to build a life in which every thought, action, and event has great value and significance.

I am sincerely grateful to MEOR for instilling me with a strong Jewish identity, a heightened sense of self, and a transformational new outlook on life.

Class of 2012, Bachelors in Business

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Samantha Udolf, Harvard University

Growing up in a Reform household in West Hartford, Connecticut, I always considered myself culturally Jewish. Though I had celebrated my Bat Mitzvah and attended synagogue for the High Holidays, I couldn’t really define what Judaism meant to me or what role it played in my life.

In my senior year at Harvard, I signed up for MEOR classes at the recommendation of Rabbi Edelstein, a longtime friend of my father and the MEOR educator at George Washington University. He also introduced me to Rabbi Ganger, the MEOR educator at Harvard. From the very first class with Rabbi Ganger, I could tell that it was a perfect fit.

The MEOR classes were always jam-packed with information, and the casual yet highly intellectual and engaging conversations about Judaism helped me frame ideas and concepts that pertained to my everyday life. These moments of inspiration and clarity were so powerful that I constantly found myself sharing what I learned with friends and family.

Towards the end of my senior year, I participated in MEOR’s Poland and Israel trips, both of which impacted me significantly. Following the Poland trip, I felt a deep sense of Jewish pride, a profound emotion that has led me to have Shabbat dinner every week since. The Israel trip took my understanding to the next level, combining intense learning opportunities with an exhilarating exploration of Israel, Judaism, and Jewish living.

My MEOR experiences on and off campus, especially my interactions with their amazing and insightful educators, have shown me the true meaning of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. I am incredibly grateful for my time with MEOR as it has prepared me for continued growth post-graduation.

Class of 2016, Bachelors in Statistics with a Minor in Computer Science

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Corey Wald, Drexel University

I was born and raised in Bellmore, New York on Long Island. I attended public school throughout my childhood while going to Hebrew School three days a week after school. It wasn’t until I began preparing for my bar mitzvah that I realized how important Judaism was in my life. One on one bar mitzvah classes with my cantor pushed me to seek out the Jewish community as I continued to grow. When looking at colleges, I prioritized a strong Jewish life on campus that would enable me to continue my Jewish growth and commitment.

On the Sunday before classes began at Drexel, all of the campus Jewish organizations hosted the Jewish Life Carnival near the freshman dorms. I gave my email to every organization so that I would know what was happening on campus and could participate in Jewish community activities. I signed up with MEOR immediately and became involved during my sophomore year when my course schedule allowed it.

I have since participated in MEOR’s Maimonides program, attended lunches, Shabbat retreats on campus and off, and traveled to Israel with MEOR.
MEOR has exponentially enhanced my Jewish learning, elevating it to a much more intellectually challenging level. The in-depth classes, coupled with the community of friends, have immensely impacted my life, and I imagine, will continue to do so throughout my college career.

Class of 2018, Bachelors and Masters of Science in Biomedical Engineering

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A Thought About Good Old Fashioned Guilt

Contrary to popular belief, guilt is not a mitzvah.

Somehow, this dark, heavy emotion has become the hallmark of many Jews’ relationship to Judaism.

We shouldn’t be so quick to point fingers and place blame on the “worsening of the times” as we are the ones that are guilty of using the emotion of guilt as the intergenerational glue that keeps “the kids” showing up to seders and high holiday services.  At a loss for a draw that showcases the intrinsic value of what we’re doing, we reach for the nearest, most potent potion to achieve the desired effect.

Ostensibly, guilt works wonderfully.  With it we can ensure that the tradition of the “religious experience” as the “guilty experience” is passed on to the next generation so that they in turn can pass on its burden to their kids.

Guilt doesn’t have to be explicit.  It is actually most effective when unspoken.  You can let your victim stew in their own juices without as much as a raised eyebrow.  A flashing frown.  A gentle grimace. Perhaps the ever-so-subtle clearing of the throat.  Or worst of all — for those with a more sadistic bent — the silence that pretends that “it’s not a problem at all” (maybe throw in a “do whatever you feel is right” line, just to make it go down smooth).

Interestingly, although these methods sound all-too-familiar to us, they are actually not quintessentially Jewish at all.  Nor is their result.

Strongly associating guilty feelings with religious observance and moral decision-making unfortunately turns guilt into our “go-to” response after doing something we regret. More often than not, this response is counter-productive.

Feeling guilty ironically make us feel like victims.  A vigorous guilt session brings us right back to reliving our mistakes as if we had been doomed to have fallen into their trap, and now doomed to forever feel bad about them.  And so, while “guilt,” in principle, should imply a sense of responsibility, it has the opposite effect, making one feel helpless without a way out.

Some religious traditions in the world have suggested a solution by making “guilt” synonyms with “repentance.”  Indeed, the etymology of “repentance” is from “penitence” since it is the pain of guilt that serves as the punishment and expiation for the penitent until they’ve “paid their dues,” at which point they can stop feeling guilty. Once they’ve been deemed to have suffered enough, they are released from their prison/torture sentence.

This experience is so unpleasant, as well as illogical, that many, in revolt, have gone to the totally opposite extreme, choosing to live life “without regrets,” avoiding any religious overtones and all feelings of remorse altogether.  Seeing as feeling guilty only serves to drag one into the past, they have wisely committed to training themselves to just never feel guilty — keep moving forward and never look back.

Our tradition offers a middle path.

In Jewish consciousness, repentance does not center around penitence, guilt and feelings of inadequacy.  Quite the opposite.  Repentance is called “teshuva,” which means “return.”  Teshuva looks to the future — it is the process of “returning” to be the person one most profoundly wants to be and is capable of being.

Beginning with feelings of guilt invariably leads us to feel identified with the mistake itself, hence the heart-rending pain of guilt.  On the one hand, we feel: how could I have done something so terrible?!? And on the other, we have no reason to believe that we won’t mess up the next time around, hence, the vicious cycle, and pangs of despair.

Teshuva begins from the opposite end of the spectrum.  A person must first identify with the depths of who they are as good.  Good.  Good!

The Torah teaches unabashedly that people are good in their essence, but we make mistakes when we aren’t connected to ourselves.

To the degree to which we identify ourselves as being good, we can look towards the future and commit to never making the mistake again.  With heart and mind straightened out, then, and only then, we can look at the past, incredulously upon our mistakes, saying, “With the clarity I have now, I would never do such a thing.”*

While “guilt” is like a black hole that sucks one into the past, “regret” is a very precise psychological incision that surgically disassociates a person from their mistake.  Think about something you did as a teenager that you would never ever do again.  Because you’ve grown many years since then, on this point, you see yourself as a different person.  You can look with full detachment from that dumb decision you made as a kid.

The feeling of regret thus serves as the foothold from which we can push forward with confidence.  Our sincere regret is evidence that we have morally matured and will not do it again.  Having tasted failure, we have renewed vigor to succeed and not end up there again.

Teshuva is primarily about the future.  Even when it relates to the past, it is in order to propel us towards a brighter tomorrow — to continue our return to who we were meant to be.

Similarly, while we could bemoan that most young Jews today view Judaism as Guiltism, and hope that our sadness will atone for our shortcomings in presenting Judaism as a forward-looking way of life — we are so much better off keeping our heads up and doing something about it.

Shabbat shalom,

Jack

(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.

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Hannah Arem, Yale University

I’ve always identified with Judaism, but at times I’ve been more distant than connected. In college I did very little as an undergraduate and while I was in a master’s program. It wasn’t until I got to Yale that I found a community where I felt comfortable.

People had told me about MEOR. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t make the time for it until a friend told me I should check out MEOR’s “vaad”. I did and I got hooked.

In the vaad, we meet on Monday nights for two hours. The first hour is presented by the rabbi, usually on a Mussar-related topic on character traits or character development. Our guest speakers have ranged from an expert on the Jews of China, to a singer/songwriter from New York and accomplished scholars from Israel. Both the depth and breadth of the material were really a big draw for me.

It’s an incredibly open forum for any kind of exploration of Jewish spirituality or identity. They really try to bring you the best resources on any subject that they can find. I have friends in the vaad who had little to no Jewish education, to some like me who attended Jewish day school. This program is really unique and offers something completely different.

I’ve never felt uncomfortable. I’ve been really impressed by MEOR’s openness and dedication to allowing each of us to express our Judaism in the way that works best for us.

MEOR has put me in touch with people in the Jewish community in Washington, DC—it’s really exciting how much is going to be available as I move from being on campus into the next stage of my life.

PhD Candidate in Epidemiology/Public Health, Research Fellow at the National Cancer Institute

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Mariel Berlin-Fischler, University of Maryland

Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, my parents always emphasized the importance of Jewish pride. “Jewish” was something that we simply were, and even without a strong religious presence in our household, the identity was a state of being. What with JCC nursery school, followed by years of obligatory Hebrew school and Bat Mitzvah preparation, I was surprised that during a tough year in my mid-teens, the first thing to go was our synagogue membership. I remember feeling extremely confused because this seemed to contradict the values with which I had been raised. My parents had always highlighted the centrality and importance of being part of a community where we were not “other,” and yet, here I was with no real connection to my Jewish community. I was promised I would not miss the synagogue, what with my multitude of Jewish friends, but even they dwindled as time marched on. Throughout high school, I floated further and further from a Jewish understanding, and the moment I arrived at the University of Maryland, I knew I had to find my way back.

The best first step I ever could have hoped to take was joining Kol Sasson, one of UMD’s three Jewish a cappella groups. This threw me, full-force, back into the community I had missed so much. Our group included a wide range of Jewish upbringings and identities, and we came together multiple time a week to sing arrangements in both Hebrew and English. We ate Shabbat meals together, traveled to different Jewish communities, and formed fun and exciting friendships based upon a common love of music and heritage. My time in the group was everything I could have asked for, and in retrospect, set the stage perfectly for my journey with MEOR.

My entrance into the MEOR scene is a story that a large number of students fondly share. Rabbi Koretzky’s enthusiastic encouragement led to my involvement with MEOR Birthright, MEOR Israel, MEOR Vision, the MEOR Maimonides courses, and all types and sources of Jewish learning, insight, and inspiration. This summer, my experience was brought full-circle with the opportunity to staff a MEOR Birthright trip alongside those whom had introduced me to Israel years before.

MEOR has provided me with the ultimate Jewish community. I’ve learned that the role Judaism has played in my past is not the same role it must play in my future, and I am now empowered to create that role. MEOR taught me about my Jewish identity, helped me find my Jewish voice, and set the course for me to live a full and connected Jewish life.

Class of 2014 BA in Theater

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Alexandra Abel, Binghamton University

I grew up in a Reform household in Livingston, NJ. Hebrew school was my connection to Jewish knowledge and that connection was severed following my Bat Mitzvah.

When I chose to study at Binghamton University, I didn’t realize that I had chosen a school with such a large Jewish population. My first week on campus, I was pleasantly surprised by an invitation to join a Challah baking activity. From that point on, my participation in Jewish events snowballed.

In my junior year, I joined MEOR’s Maimonides program and was hooked. During my senior year, I studied with the MEOR educator on campus, Rabbi Kersh, and he suggested that I go to Israel with MEOR after I graduated. I was thirsting for a greater connection to my Jewish roots, so I happily joined the trip.

That MEOR Israel trip changed my life. I traveled and learned with like-minded people and decided to extend my trip for 6 weeks and joing the JInternship program. At JInternship, I continued to learn about Judaism but also gained real-life work experience in my field. During my 6-week journalism internship, I connected to Judaism and worked for JewishPress.com.

Now that I’m back in New York and working for People StyleWatch, I take everything I have learned through MEOR and apply it to my life. I surround myself with like-minded people and continue to discover Judaism through MEOR’s Young Professionals learning program for women, Souled. I am incredibly grateful for the knowledge I have gained and the community I am now a part of through MEOR.

Class of 2012, BA in English

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Misha Vilenchuk, Brandeis University

Though born in Russia, I spent my first years in Israel and moved to the United States at age five. We settled in Columbus, Ohio and adjusted to the American lifestyle. Though I always knew we were Jewish, my family was influenced much more by Russian culture. We neither celebrated the holidays at home, nor did we attend synagogue. The extent of my Jewish connection was an occasional Yiddish song sung in my Russian choir class.

At Brandeis University, I heard about MEOR through a friend during a time when I was seeking spiritual direction. Rabbi Gould invited me to sit in on a class; my interest was piqued and I enrolled for the next semester. I enjoyed every moment of MEOR Maimonides and continued learning through Maimonides II. I also met weekly with Rabbi Gould until my graduation.

My MEOR experience was overwhelmingly positive. Through my classes with MEOR I entered the rigorous depths of Jewish knowledge that the Jewish sages attained over many millennia. I gained a Jewish foundation and insight into leading a Jewish life. The wealth of scholarship which I accessed was beyond my wildest expectations.
In the summer of 2014, I traveled to Israel with MEOR. The mix of fun, Jewish experiences, and in-depth learning showed me the expansive nature of Jewish thought and gave me even greater context for my Judaism. My most memorable moment from the trip was celebrating Shavuot. Together with hundreds of MEOR Israel students, I learned Torah late into the night in the Old City of Jerusalem, just opposite the Western Wall. The ability to spend the full night learning about and celebrating my Judaism with hundreds of others is something I will always carry with me.

I credit MEOR with almost single-handedly sparking my profound interest in Jewish learning, which I continue to explore daily.

Class of 2016 BA in Russian Studies, Near East and Judaic Studies, and History

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Eve Litvak, Brandeis University

I was raised in Fair Lawn, New Jersey with the knowledge that I was Jewish, but with a limited understanding of what that meant and its consequences. My father, a history buff, would often speak about World War II, but even then, he did not mention the impact being Jewish in the Soviet Union had on our family. I never received any formal Jewish education and my experience with attending shul was limited to supporting my friends at their bar mitzvah ceremonies.

When I arrived at Brandeis University I was curious about the Jewish community and wanted to explore it, but I never quite felt Jewish enough to belong in the spaces of formally educated Jewish students. It wasn’t until I left the United States to study abroad that I began to view my life through a Jewish lens.

For my junior year of university, I spent twelve months studying in Italy, Russia, and the Netherlands. During that extended period of time, I began to feel isolated, separated from other Jewish people, and realized how important my Jewish identity really was to me. When I returned to Brandeis for my senior year I made it my goal to find out how I could further explore this aspect of my life.

MEOR Maimonides was the first program I joined upon my return to campus. The course encouraged us to engage in conversations, tell stories, and generate thoughtful discussions. When I realized that the values and lessons being taught in the classes were already in line with the beliefs I inherited from my family or inherently held from my own life experiences, I felt empowered and began forming a connection with Judaism.

During my last semester, I participated in MEOR’s women’s programming to continue my individual learning while cultivating relationships with like-minded women and building a supportive community for myself.

After graduation I went on MEOR Israel, which was a holistic opportunity to gain exposure to formal Jewish learning while simultaneously connecting to Israel physically, spiritually, historically, culturally, and emotionally. This was an incredible experience that could only be followed by more time in Israel. I extended my stay and spent the summer in Israel discovering what the country means to me as an individual and a Jew, as well as my responsibilities to the country and to myself.

I will be returning to Brandeis in the fall of 2016 to pursue my master’s degree in Comparative Humanities.

Class of 2016 BA in Global Studies

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Gabe Duec, American University

I grew up in a Latin-American family in Philadelphia. As Argentinian Jews, we were (and continue to be) very family oriented and traditional. I grew up attending Conservative Jewish schools and went to an Orthodox synagogue, but my Jewish connection was exclusively viewed through the prism of Zionism and traditional values. I didn’t feel any deep connection to my Jewish heritage.

Upon arrival at American University I immediately became involved in several Jewish activities on campus, including Friday night dinners and other social events. When Sophomore year rolled around, I was introduced to Rabbi ‘E’ Edelstein and joined the winter trip to Israel with MEOR. Going to Israel with MEOR was without question the biggest and best decision of my collegiate career.

When I returned from the Israel trip, I immediately signed up for MEOR’s Monday night learning class (and the free falafel did help sweeten the deal). Later, on MEOR Vision, I discovered that Judaism was real and relevant. It wasn’t just for Rabbis, but for the rest of us, too. We learned from actual texts at a high level, which made me feel valued and included.

After college, I came to Israel to study and made Aliyah in September 2015. I’m now living in Israel and working for Nefesh B’Nefesh, helping other Jews make the move to Israel. I truly believe that the connection I feel to Judaism and the Land of Israel is a credit to the learning and growth that took place during my time with MEOR.

Class of 2014 International Relations

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Becca Federman, George Washington University

I was very involved in the Conservative movement growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Though I attended public school for high school, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah, was very involved in the Conservative youth movement, attended synagogue every week and participated in a gap year program in Israel following high school. But, I didn’t have the depth of Jewish knowledge or the learning opportunities that I was craving.

When I started my freshman year at George Washington University, I threw myself into the Jewish life on campus. I joined every Shabbat dinner and Jewish event that I could find, and signed myself up for MEOR’s Maimonides program right away. For the first time in my life, I was studying Judaism on a highly intellectual level.

After completing the Maimonides course in my freshman year, I travelled with MEOR to Israel. Upon returning, I signed up for Maimonides II for my sophomore year, and helped create a MEOR Miami
winter break trip. I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I spent a semester abroad in Jordan that all my learning struck a chord. Studying in Jordan was the first time that I couldn’t publicly embrace my Judaism, and the experience forced me to think about how I wanted to live my life as a Jew outside of my university experience.

When I came back from Jordan, I served as MEOR President at GW during my senior year, helping with Shabbat dinners and campus programming. Thanks to MEOR’s guidance and inspiration, I chose to spend almost eight months learning in Israel after graduation. I can confidently say that MEOR changed my life for the better by fueling my desire for Jewish growth in a healthy, intellectual, and passionate way.

Class of 2013 Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs

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Andrew Hecht, Harvard University

Growing up in Hollywood, FL, I was born Jewish, but I lacked a depth of understanding of Judaism. Our family wasn’t affiliated, and I didn’t grow up attending Hebrew School. The extent of my formal Jewish education was six sessions that prepared me to read transliterated Hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah.

I hoped to connect to the Jewish community during my undergraduate studies at the University of Florida but I wasn’t inspired by the programing I attended on campus. Feeling a spiritual void, by the end of my sophomore year of college, I began to independently explore other faith systems.

Soon after, I began to take notice of the visible presence of Christian outreach organizations on campus. I was invited to attend a local church where I became inspired by the pastor’s message and the charitable work of the congregation. My involvement with the Christian community on campus allowed me to feel the warmth of spirituality that I was looking for. I didn’t know any different, and, at the time, it just felt right.

After college, I attended church for two and a half years, where I continued my Biblical studies. By the time I began my master’s program at Harvard University, I self-identified as a Messianic Jew.

Studying the Bible in my spare time in Cambridge, I began to have questions that challenged the doctrine of the Church. I was eventually introduced to Rabbi Yoni Ganger, the MEOR representative on the Harvard campus, through a fellow student. Rabbi Ganger provided me my first formal Jewish learning opportunity. He was incredibly patient with me and treated me like family. Rabbi Ganger invited me to my first Shabbat meal and soon after, he helped facilitate a trip to Israel. In Israel, I officially rejected my messianic identity. As I reflect back, I consider my time with Rabbi Ganger to be the most meaningful and important part of my time at Harvard.

I have since returned to Florida, where I am working on my PhD in Educational Leadership at Florida International University. I now self-identify as a proud Jew. I credit my relationship with Rabbi Ganger and MEOR at Harvard University with redirecting my life’s path, connecting me to my Jewish roots and inspiring me to continue learning and growing.

Class of 2015 MA in Education Policy and Management

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Alex Bronzo, University of Maryland

I was always aware of my Jewish roots growing up. I was raised as part of a Reform Jewish community in Long Island, NY and attended Hebrew school all the way through high school. Looking back on my decision to choose a university, I believe that I was looking for a campus with a large Jewish community, somewhere where I could connect with my Judaism on a deeper level, even if I didn’t truly realize it at the time.

During my junior year at UMD, I met with Rabbi Koretzky. He was young, engaging and understood my background. He helped me view my inexperience with Jewish learning as a growth opportunity, which I found refreshing. I immediately signed up for the Maimonides program. I began to learn Torah in-depth and on a challenging intellectual level, but most importantly, I also learned about who I was in context of our history.

By the end of that semester, I experienced Israel for the first time with MEOR. I saw first-hand how essential Israel was to Judaism, not just historically, but to our future.

My MEOR Israel trip changed my life, and changed the direction of my career. I seized every opportunity to return to Israel. Soon after graduation, I worked for AIPAC, and after a few years I returned to Israel for my MA in diplomacy and conflict resolution at IDC Herzliya. I now work for AJC, the American Jewish Committee in New York, promoting global Jewish advocacy.

Without a doubt, my life’s purpose and positive connection to Judaism and Israel was cemented and directed by my experiences with MEOR.

Class of 2007, Government and Politics

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Liz Wessel, University of Pennsylvania

I was raised in a Reform Jewish household on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and attended Columbia Prep School. I was always aware of my Jewish roots, attending Temple a few times per year with my family and Jewish day school twice a week until my Bat Mitzvah. But my serious Jewish learning began in college.

I first heard about MEOR during my junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, and I joined the Maimonides program the following year. For the first time in my life, I was able to learn Torah in-depth and on a challenging intellectual level. I was hooked.

In the summer of 2012, I went on MEOR’s Israel trip. That trip single-handedly changed my life.

The major take-away from that trip was a deeper sense of belief and connection, one that allowed me to finally begin trusting that “I am where I am supposed to be.” This feeling has enabled me to live my life with a greater sense of purpose and the belief that I want to live my life for the greater good.

Not only have I imparted these lessons to my family, but my belief in a greater purpose has allowed me to take risks and trust myself more. After working at Google for two years following university, I started my own company, WayUp, a site used by hundreds of thousands of students throughout the US, to find jobs at places like Uber, Microsoft, the New York Times and Disney. For me, it’s now all about helping students connect with employers to kick start their bright and rewarding futures.

Having this deeper sense of belief and connection to Judaism has really allowed me to grow and live a life of deeper meaning and continues to inspire me grow into who I’m meant to be.

Class of 2012, Political Science and Mathematics

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Michelle Jacobs, Northwestern University

There is something really special going on at MEOR. It can be summed up in one word: community.

I never expected that my Friday nights in college would include a Shabbat dinner, but MEOR is different. For the only time each week, I would sit and talk with my friends. Without cell phones, without a television blaring in the background, we would sit at long tables and, over steaming hot chicken soup, discuss our lives, our dreams and goals. MEOR is a place where I could sit down at any chair in the room and introduce myself to someone new. It is a safe space. It is a community.

Four years ago, because of MEOR, Shabbat became a part of my life. Although I was a regular on Friday nights, I never expected to be interested in whatever Jewish learning they were offering. And I wasn’t until my junior year when I discovered that MEOR was offering a two-week trip to Israel for $600. Despite my lack of interest in learning, the trip was affordable and sounded fun.

Through this exploration I found depth and meaning in learning about my shared history with the Jewish people. I found meaning in holding values that are not based on societal pressures but what is truly important to me.

When I first stepped foot in the MEOR house, I never expected those initial Friday dinners to become the first step towards an extraordinary and life-changing path of personal growth and discovery—a path that I am continuing through further study in Israel this year.

Class of 2011, Double Major in Psychological Services and Dance

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A Short Word About Actions

All he said was, “please, take a bit of water…I’ll get bread, and you’ll eat until your hearts’ content…”  It was just enough to convince his guests, perfect strangers, to sit in the shade for long enough for him to prepare lunch.

He rushed home, asked his wife to bake 20 lb. of flour into cakes.  Meanwhile, he ran to help his son slaughter 3 cows, so that he could serve to each one of his unassuming visitors his own personal cow tongue with mustard, so that each of them would know that he was worth slaughtering a whole cow for.  It was worth losing three cows’ worth of meat if necessary to convey that message to them. He rushed back with milk and butter so that they should enjoy an appetizer before the meal.

All of this, and in the end it turned out that they were angels who didn’t need food anyway, but politely pretended to eat (“when on earth do as the humans do”)

In times of campaign promises and grandiose proclamations, we are most refreshed not by the lavish meal that we’re served, but by the meager words that preceded it. The tongue speaks words so much more easily than the legs move to do what they must.  It is no wonder that actions speak louder than words.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Jack

Rabbi Jack Cohen served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy.  He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)
Based on Rashi, the Mishna in Pirkei Avot 1:14, and “Between Man & God and Man & His Fellow” by the Alter of Slobodka

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A Thought About Technology

Computers double in speed every 18 months.

Custom-tailored DNA will soon be as commonplace as 3D printing.

The AP now has automated computer programs that output crystal clear, financial reports in English from numerical data inputs.

We’re making progress.

But towards what destination?

If “progress” is synonymous with technological progress, it could be anywhere.

Faster computers could translate for many to faster hacking. DNA modification could lead to genetic elitism. Computer-produced journalism, while relatively safe when reporting the rising and falling of stock prices, will bring with it a whole slew of complexities when dealing with anything more subjective than raw numbers.

Technology is a vehicle. One that rapidly gets faster and more efficient at getting us to where we want to go. It can be self-driving and equipped with a GPS that will take us wherever we tell it to.

But the destination? That can only come from us. Whether we decide to use it for serving the greater good or for serving ourselves alone.

Technology is agnostic. It does what it’s told. It doesn’t hold its own beliefs.

Although we associate technology with modernity, so did every generation before us. Everyone has had to reckon with technology in their time. The problem of technology is therefore not a new one; it’s as old as humankind.

Noah’s name means “rest”*.

For us in the 21st century who go to sleep and wake up answering never-ending streams of emails and workflows, just the word can evoke a yearning sigh. Real rest. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Noah’s father named him based on a premonition that his son would bring about a transformation in a world that desperately needed respite from the round-the-clock work of farming that had been consuming people’s waking lives for hundreds of years**.

When Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden, the Earth was cursed with them. No longer would delicious, succulent fruits of every kind grow on their own without human effort. Those days were over. If you wanted to put food on your table, you were going to have to work for it.

The theory behind the curse was that we had been spoiled in the Garden, and that’s why we messed up. If, however, we learned to make the land blossom, we would come to appreciate the value of work, and eventually take responsibility for bringing ourselves to blossom through cultivating our moral and spiritual growth.

With noble intentions, Noah questioned the mechanics of the curse. Perhaps we weren’t doomed to work. Maybe we could artificially go back to a Garden of Eden state by hacking the system. “If we didn’t have to work,” he reasoned, “then we’d be free to do the real work of developing ourselves morally and spiritually.”

Noah became the Thomas Edison of his time, motivated by bringing about a mass movement of moral and spiritual enlightenment. He set out to invent a solution to the problem of work and was successful.

Kind of.

Noah invented the plow. It was a total game-changer. The iPlow sold like iPhones. Think about using a hoe to break up dirt a few inches at a time, and then, by hand, shoveling to make grooves to plant seeds for a whole field. Contrast this to walking your ox down the field as it almost effortlessly drags a plow behind it. A day’s work was reduced to a couple of hours, theoretically freeing up the rest of the day for study, reflection, moral development, and good deeds towards others.

Theoretically.

Technology is meant to bring us rest, and perhaps on the micro level it does. But if we look more broadly at the macro effects of technology in the 20th and 21st centuries — although it has certainly made us more productive, we are no less busy. In many ways, we are more busy than ever. With more time, workaholics take on more work. Shopaholics shop more, which eventually requires them to work more to afford their spending habits. Hence, the vicious cycle of work and leisure. Our purpose as people gets lost in the shuffle.

When Noah saw that people just worked harder and played harder with whatever time they had gained through plowing, he lost a lot of his faith in humanity. He turned inwards, and focused on his own spiritual growth and that of his family.

God challenged him with the introduction of a new technology: the Ark. A vehicle. The challenge was: was he just going to blindly use it to save himself and his family or would he pray for the world so that it would never need to be used in the first place?***

Noah used the technology of the Ark and used it about as well as one could have. He got his family and all the animals in there, and took care of them during the flood — but he missed the essential question he was being asked. Technologies are technical, and the technical was blocking him from the essential, even though solving the essential, in this case, would have avoided using the technical solution entirely.

Technical tools cannot resolve essential questions of right and wrong. They never will. They can help us make a living, but it will not teach us how to live.**** Not even the iPhone 7 (in case someone was waiting for the new Siri to resolve complex, ethical dilemmas in their lives).

Our faith in ourselves and in humanity must come from the desire that it is not only our computers that advance every 18 months, but so much more importantly, that we do as well. Focusing on evolving technologies around us can distract us from the most important upgrades we can make. We must become wiser, more caring, and stronger of character in ways technology cannot and never will. Like the plants we once cultivated, we grow naturally — as long as we focus on the light of essential purpose and seek to grow towards it.

It should be a year of joyful spiritual work and growth for everyone!

Shabbat shalom and a blessing of peace and safety to all of our brothers and sisters in Israel,

Rabbi Jack

(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)

*נח is Noah in Hebrew. לנוח means “to rest.”

**Bereishit 5:29 – “And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands from the ground, which the Lord has cursed.’ ”

***The flood is referred to as the “waters of Noah” by the prophet Isaiah, attributing the flood to Noah, and placing its weight on his shoulders. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t believe in people enough to pray sincerely (Ohr Hatzafun, דקות התביעה בקצה השלמות).

****Quote from Rabbi Shmuel Lynn.

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Adrian Fernandez, Stanford University

I went to Hebrew school growing up, but it was not a big thing in my family to practice Jewish customs. It was a bit of a struggle after my mom passed away six years ago. My dad’s not Jewish and although he was very supportive, by the time I was in high school, I had to navigate my Jewish identity by myself.

When I came to Stanford, I went to High Holiday services, got connected to Hillel and met people who made me feel extremely comfortable in the Jewish community. I went to a freshman Shabbat dinner at the MEOR rabbi’s house and that re-kindled the spark.

Even when I was a little kid, I appreciated being in temple. There was something about it that made me want to stay connected–to spirituality and to God.

Around the anniversary of my mother’s passing, I contacted the MEOR rabbi and asked if I could take him up on his offer to buy me coffee. He has an open invitation to all the Jewish students to take them to coffee and talk about whatever they want. He answered my questions in a way that was fulfilling for an hour, and I was very interested in continuing to learn.

So last fall, I did the Maimonides program and it really snowballed. The rabbi and I have been meeting weekly. We try for one hour, but we usually go two or more, because the subject matter is so interesting and inspiring! We meet on Fridays and it’s a perfect segue into Shabbat. It’s a time to reflect and strive for something a bit deeper than the busy-ness of the week.

Class of 2013, Biology Major

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A Thought About Being A Work in Progress

We all suffer from a God complex. We want to get things perfectly right the first time, and we get really frustrated with ourselves when we don’t.

You’d think we would pick up on the pattern by now. You’d think we’d catch onto the fact that there is nothing we ever did perfectly the first time we had a shot at it. You’d also think that we’d go easier on other people when they mess up, since we all mess up.

We’re all works in progress. We’re all works in progress. We’re all works in progress.

This is a mantra that must be repeated again and again and again.

And it is.

This past Tuesday, on Simchat Torah, we concluded the Torah with the tragic death of Moses at the frontier of the land he so desperately desired to set foot on, and within minutes, we start all over again: “In the beginning of God’s creating the Heavens and the Earth…”

There is so much depth and meaning and nuance to be appreciated when we go back to the beginning. We didn’t get everything that there was there to get the first time around. What better way to prove it to ourselves than to study it again?

We quickly learn that even God doesn’t suffer from a God complex: He creates Light and it’s “Good,” even by His own assessment, but despite this, He adjusts it to be more “user-centered” as opposed to “designer-centered.” “Good” can still be “Great”*. What’s technically “perfect” is not always what the world needs**. In modern tech-speak: God iterates in His design. Like a good teacher, God adjusts to His students who change and grow. Our problem is that we look at ourselves as more static than our Creator does. He believes in us to grow past failure, but do we?

Adam and Eve mess up, and they’re given a chance to own up to their mistakes. They fail to do so.

Cain kills his brother Abel, and God opens the opportunity for him to accept responsibility, but he only half does.

Noah is given the opportunity to really care for humanity. He doesn’t quite succeed. The flood comes. However, he does successfully tend to the animal kingdom on the ark. Finally, when the waters subside, and he is asked to restart the human race with all the Divine assurances that he can do so, he gives up before he even starts***.

Our biggest failure is allowing our failure be fatal.

A sober look at failure reveals that failure is historically the #1 cause for success. Google has become what it is not in spite of but because of at least 50 major flops and counting (and on the order of thousands of mini-failures every week). They pride themselves on failing and learning from their mistakes.

We as a nation have also been built on failure with 3 and a half millennia more on record than Google (we can brag about our failures!). We’ve been destroyed, and we rebuilt. We were destroyed again, and we rebuilt again. We get knocked down, and we get up again. We did it again in the second half of the last century, and you better believe that we’re going to do it again in this one.

In the timeless words of King Solomon, “the righteous fall seven times, and gets back up” — they are not less righteous for having fallen — they actually become righteous by getting back up every time****.

The entire Talmud is composed of failed theories of Jewish law and ethics, and the more complete and resilient theories that emerge out of them. Both the failed theories and surviving theories are recorded, and we can often learn more from the failed ones even if it is the final ones that form the bottom line from a practical perspective.

When one finishes a volume of the Talmud, no matter how well they’ve come to know it, they recite a beautiful refrain addressed to the personified volume that they just invested so much time and energy into learning: “We will return to you, and you will return to us.” We assure it that closing the book is only temporary. Learning doesn’t stop. It can’t stop. Because we are all works in progress.

Knowing this can change our lives. It liberates us to live more joyfully. As we absorb this mantra that resounds like a chorus throughout Jewish life, we become more patient with ourselves and with one another. We realize the obvious: we don’t have to be perfect — no one is perfect. And then, the most magical thing happens — we start to have fun again. We aren’t performing; we’re discovering. No one enjoys failing, even in a game, but knowing that there is another round, where you can apply what you’ve learned, brings the fun right back.

The only thing we have to commit to is to learn constantly — from our mistakes and the mistakes and wisdom of others.

As we emerge from Yom Kippur into Sukkot and then Simchat Torah and beyond, the joy we take with us is not primarily that we have a clean slate — a perfect record — but that life is a process in which we try our best and can continue to learn and grow, even from our most seemingly tragic mistakes. With this in mind and heart, we head into another year of life smiling and growing.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jack

Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)

*Notice that only after man is created — the first fallible creature due to his free will — is the world referred to as “Very Good” (1:31).

**”God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good and separated the light from the darkness” (1:3-4) See Rashi who explains that this means that the light was “too good” — too powerful — and would be abused. God shows us right away that the creative process is an iterative one in which we make mistakes and can fix them (Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld).

***God “tries” so hard to get Noah to believe that he can do it — that he can restart the world (8:15-9:17). Noah, however, doesn’t believe in himself, and gets drunk instead (9:20-21).

****Proverbs 24:16 according to the Rav Yitzhak Hutner (Purim).

*****This piece is primarily inspired by the Alter of Slabodka’s speech “Destruction and Reconstruction” published in Ohr Hatzafun.

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A Thought About Competition and Collaboration

US News’ Top 50 Schools.  Forbes’ 500 Richest People in the World.  TIME’s 50 Most Influential People.  Valedictorian of her class.  The Salutatorian a close 2nd.  Gold Medal.  Silver Medal.  And barely worth mentioning — the Bronze Medal.

We’re constantly ranking and being ranked.  It’s a central part of our culture.  Smith’s theory of the free market and Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest have become hallowed cornerstones of our philosophy of life.

Of course, you have to “be nice” along the way.  Good sportsmanship and all that.  But when we’re brutally honest — this is a competition.

None of us want to believe this, and we’ll address why not, but we must first open our eyes to how pervasive this message is.  The schooling system is built on it, with the bell curve its most overt manifestation, but with many more subtle forms as well.  Pop culture is constantly feeding us who’s “hottest,” “richest,” “most this” and “most that.” And in our companies and organizations, we competing against each other often for promotions if not for respect and admiration alone.

We would be delusional to think that this ubiquitous mindset doesn’t impact our spiritual sensibilities.

Of course, we’re not so immature or shallow so as to think that life is about amassing wealth or number of social connections.  We’ve grown out of that.  But on some level, we probably believe, whether we’ve articulated it or not, that there is some super complicated algorithm that calculates the sum total of “everything that matters”: the number and quality of our relationships, how much knowledge we’ve acquired and the insight we have, the social impact we’ve made, perhaps how many mitzvot we’ve done, and of course, how much fun we’ve had along the way, which must be included in any full assessment of life’s value.  All of these get put into the machine, and out comes a number that is our Bottom Line Score.

…Someone may be richer than me, but I bet I have more fun…Someone seems to be having more fun than me, but I’m going to have more of an impact in the world…

We are thus competing for “the Best Overall Life.”

This is the Great Fallacy in the World.

It is the root of judgment between people.  That terrible pit-in-your-stomach feeling when you feel judged is the perception that someone is calculating your Bottom Line Score as a person, and estimating whether it’s above or below theirs.  It comes from a complete distortion on what life is about.  We all know it’s crooked whether or not we can explain why.

We have it backwards: we picture life like a racetrack with 7 billion lanes.  We are together insofar as we’re competing against one another.

The opposite is in fact true: we are together in everything except for the competition between us.  We are competing only against ourselves.  We are together to help each other, learn from each other, love each other, and work together for the greater good, but we are not competing against one another.

Today is the eve of the Day of Judgement.  None of us will be judged in comparison to one another.  The very thought is absurd.  Thirty seconds of sustained contemplation reveals that no two people can be compared as human beings.  No two people have the same circumstances, abilities, sensitivities, inner challenges, experiences, relationships — and perhaps more importantly — who says that we all have the same purpose in the world?  Perhaps we’re here to serve totally different purposes?  And if that is the case, what meaning is there to the comparison?  It would be like a swimmer racing a sprinter, a pole vaulter competing against a high jumper, or even a high diver against a horseback rider.

We will be judged in the only way that makes sense — each of us is judged only against our own potential.  The only question asked of us is: are we becoming the people we were born to be?  I can only be expected to be me and you can only be expected to be you.  I have to discover my role in the world and you have to discover yours.  We both have to live up to ourselves and ourselves alone.  I have no way to judge you, and you have no way to judge me.

To the degree to which we get this, we turn our attention away from judging others, and we look to judge ourselves.  Are we the best versions of ourselves?  Whatever assets we have and whatever we’ve achieved up until now, just means that more is expected from us.  Are we living up to our own values? We may not be living up to other people’s standards, but are we living up to our own?  In a sense, this is scarier than being compared to other people.

The degree to which we understand this, is the degree to which we turn back towards other people, this time not to judge them but to be irreplaceable parts of their lives.  We must walk into our Judgment with arms linked.  If we can’t survive the true judgement on ourselves as individuals, we can certainly survive as a community.

Think about the people that depend on you.  Your parents.  Your kids.  Your siblings.  Your friends. Your colleagues.  Your grandparents.  Your grandchildren.  Your students.

They need your love.  Your guidance.  Your listening ear.  Your insight.  Your example.  Your empathy. Your inspiration.

We have two obligations in this world.  The first is to try and be the best version of ourselves because no one can do it for us.  The second is to do everything we can for those around us who need us.  We need them too.  If not for them, we probably wouldn’t make it through a personal audit.  But together, arms linked, we will, with Hashem’s help, have a good and sweet year of helping each other become the people we were born to be.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Shana Tova Umetuka,

Rabbi Jack

(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy.  He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)

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A Thought About Apologizing

A grown woman once commented to me that she hadn’t spoken to one of her best friends in nearly 10 years. Since “the fight.” I was about 13 at the time, so 10 years was practically a lifetime. At 13, I couldn’t fathom (naively) what could possibly come between two mature adults to allow such a dramatic chasm to open between them, so I asked, “what was ‘the fight’ about?”

She couldn’t remember.

The two of them had been facing away from each other for so long that the only thing that they could remember about their relationship was their present posture — one of arms crossed and averted gazes.

Inertia dictates that this emotional “body language” will persist indefinitely without reconciliation. What’s more — as one person begins to turn away in their feelings of hurt, the other, in response, to protect themselves, rightfully or not, turns away as well, with contempt bouncing back and forth like the feedback of a microphone with a loudspeaker, which increases between them until they are facing in totally opposite directions.

If we survey our own social network — which exists in our hearts and the hearts of those with whom we share or have shared real relationships, independent of data stored on internet servers — we can begin to perceive that while in our thriving relationships, we face our friends and family members in open, connected, smiling, face-to-face eye contact, we have other relationships in which this is sadly not the case. Maybe, at one point, our connection with these friends was like that of the first set of relationships, but now, due to either one moderate-sized argument or several smaller quibbles, we sadly stand positioned facing slightly away from one another, nervously incapable of holding eye-contact for too long. And finally, and tragically, we may have some friendships in which we have long ago given up hope. All we can see now are the backs of those former friends — their faces we haven’t seen in so many years — they are like strangers all over again.

Picture your network. How many faces are beaming at you?

Do you see any shoulders or turned backs?

Amidst the warm glow of shining faces, seeing even a single, silhouetted back or a distant look over the shoulder of someone whom we once called a “friend” will bring make us shiver with icy cold.

We are entering the last week of the month of teshuva, literally “return.” We will soon cross the threshold of the new year and enter the 10 days of teshuva to continue our return which culminates in Yom Kippur.

To whom are we meant to return?

We turn back to see ourselves as the pure-hearted people we once knew ourselves to be.

We turn back towards Hashem by rediscovering our once-vibrant enthusiasm for moral growth, our joy for learning new things about life, and reclaiming our ability to speak simply and openly to our Creator as we could once do with such ease on our pillows just before sleep would sweep us away.

And, of course, we turn back to hopefully meet the gazes of old friends whose faces we once could see so clearly.

While we can ask God to forgive us for our personal failings and give us another chance, there is no point in asking Him to forgive our failures in our relationships with other people. Omnipotent as He is, He does not mend for us our broken lines of communication. That holy work can only be done by us.

Additionally, in many cases, we may believe that another person is “being too sensitive” or perhaps we would even argue that they owe us an apology, and so we wait, with backs turned, expecting something to change, and in the meantime, we pretend to be unfazed. Time does not heal this wound either. Why would it? One person is expecting an apology and the other is certain that he doesn’t owe one.

Asking for forgiveness is always hard. We have to overcome our egos and transcend our shame. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to apologize as soon as possible before the relationship freezes into gridlock amidst powerful emotions. But this time of year especially, there is a unique energy of forgiveness in the air. We are asked to go above and beyond the already tall task of securing forgiveness; we must desire to return to one another. Fully and wholeheartedly. It has nothing to do with “who was right” and “who was wrong.” It is not a forgiveness of being “let off the hook” by the person we’ve injured. It is about going back to facing one another. With eye-contact. Smiling. Beaming.

With this mindset, who cares who was at fault? Don’t we prefer to have our friends back instead of seeing our former friends’ backs?

Hashem should give us the vision of what can be if we can all face each other again, the courage to open our hearts and say the words that will open the hearts of those we seek to love and be loved by again, and arrive לפני ה׳ “before Hashem” as one people with one heart.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack

(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)
*See Vayikra 16:30. This whole piece is based on the upcoming book on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by my Rebbe, Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, who built on the ideas in the writings of Rav Yitzhak Hutner in Pachad Yitzhak Yom Kippur 2 and the Sfas Emes on Yoma 87b.

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A Thought About Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a mystery that eludes us.  One can easily (yet tragically) go a lifetime without ever encountering it in its true form.

We may relate to it flippantly: apologizing without really meaning it, or telling people we forgive them while sweeping piles of harbored resentment under the rug.

Or, fathoming just how serious of a thing it is, we can fall prey to cynicism, retreating into a position that believes forgiveness to be an archaic ritual that isn’t really possible to do in a meaningful way, pointing ironically at those above-mentioned people who say “sorry!” amidst nervous giggles, or say they “forgive you” when they are simply trying their best to forget the hurt you caused them.

Is forgiveness a myth we have all bought into?

If it is a real thing, how does it work? How is it more than just forgetting?

If someone wrongs you — hurts you — how can you ever really forgive them?  If they say they “didn’t mean to hurt you,” does that make it better?  How can their temporary obliviousness to your feelings make you feel better?

Just to appreciate how weighty of a matter forgiveness is, take a moment to think: how many times in your life has someone really and sincerely asked for forgiveness from you with such potency that as a result, you released all pain and frustration from your heart, bringing you as close if not closer to the person than before the fight?

Probably not too many times.

How many times have you sincerely asked for forgiveness?  Sincerely tried to feel the pain you caused someone else?  Genuinely heard them out to see it from their perspective and recognized that you were wrong?

Probably not too many times.

The real deal is hard to do and hard to come by, but this is, of course, what makes it so precious.

We must be careful to not cheapen it.  As surely as the “thank you” we use for the person who holds the elevator for us can’t be the same “thank you” reserved for our parents, so too, the “sorry” we use for accidentally stepping on someone’s heel on the sidewalk can’t be the same as the “sorry” owed to a friend whose feelings we have deeply injured.

If it is to be more than just lip service, from where do we find it within ourselves to ask for forgiveness, and from where do we find it within ourselves to forgive?

True forgiveness is a matter of identity.

Our most common identity is a confused identity.  We have flashes of inspiration, but live most of the time in a grey zone of ambiguity.

However, all of us have within us another identity that is pure and pristine.  As such, it is much more of an identity than the common grey one.  Its edges stand bright and defined against the background of grey.  There, who we are would never callously cause anyone pain, because there, who we are is wholly aware, conscious and sensitive to others.  There, we know full-well that we fail others only when we relax into the grey of our unconscientious and uncaring selves, and hence our lives of dual identities, and our lifelong battles to be the best-version-of-ourselves that we know ourselves to be.

To the degree to which we haven’t clearly and affirmatively identified with that inner identity, we inevitably feel a vague sense of guilt for our mistakes that have caused pain to others, which invariably produces grey, uninspired requests for forgiveness (if any) to quell our own feelings of guilt rather than reach the hearts of those we’ve hurt.

If, however, we claim ownership for our good intentions — if we identify with them as sincere, as only we can in our heart of hearts — then, and only then, our outer, dumber, insensitive selves are shed, and we can ask for forgiveness with a full heart.  The person who hurt someone else was never the person I consciously wanted to be.  It is at this point that we can come to our senses, see the situation from the other person’s perspective, and admit our fault.  And the more we get in touch with this dichotomy and our own true self, the more we will be open to forgive others who ask us for forgiveness from their true selves.

Leading up to Rosh Hashana, the gates to our true selves are wide open.  We just need the courage to jump the gap and identify with who we most truly are.  From that vantage point, we will look back at past mistakes with new perspective, and feel the pain of others that we are responsible for with renewed vibrancy.  Once there, gates upon gates open up for the sincere phone calls, hand-written letters, emails, and personal conversations that we owe to those around us, whom we pray will receive our words with similarly open hearts.

Hashem should open wide all of our hearts to find our true and good identities, give us the courage to boldly leap and be the people we were born to be, open the hearts of those whose hurt we seek to mend, and similarly allow us to recognize the true and good identities of all those around us who are praying for our forgiveness for their mistakes.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack

(Rabbi Jack Cohen served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy.  He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)

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A Thought About Honesty

An honest moment is harder to come by than one would think.

It’s not like we’re looking for divine revelation or a heavenly voice. Not even for some cosmically important, life-changing, new idea to pop into our heads.

Just a moment of seeing things for what they are, and seeing ourselves for who we are. Not overly critical, nor with rose-colored glasses. No illusions. No delusions. Just a straight, truthful reflection in the mirror of objectivity.

It sounds simple enough, but we call these moments “epiphanies.” Some totally mundane moment on a random Wednesday can bring you into a sufficiently thoughtful and sober state of mind to realize that that thing your parents have been telling you for years, or that thing your wife was asking you for, or that thing you’ve been meaning to do for months but kept avoiding — is true! And real! And valid! And makes sense! And wow — why did it take you so long to see it?!?

No new information was presented. No bolts of lightning. No heavenly voice. And yet, these moments are so rare that we, in the 21st century, call them “epiphanies,” a term classically used by Christians and the ancient Greeks to denote a supernatural revelation — and here, you had it while sipping your Starbucks and people-watching on the train.

The amazing thing about the Truth is that it was there all along — right under our noses, yet we couldn’t sense its sweet fragrance. But when we do, we inhale deeply and open our eyes to see it everywhere around us. In the wake of an epiphany, everything glows with renewed vibrancy. The vibrancy of truth to which our senses had been dulled with a powerful anesthetic. As such, these encounters are nothing short of bumping into Reality itself — no matter how “mundane” the realization was. They are moments of waking up from a dream. The world we lived in prior fades and is shed like the skin of a snake. We look around with new eyes.

To whatever degree you came to understand something true about yourself — something real about life — which is now so obvious, but was previously invisible — this moment is truly supernatural. If nature is the norm, our norm is to be oblivious. What is abnormal is to be awake and aware and recognize that which is true about who we are and who we want to be. These are supernatural epiphanies indeed.

For the atheist, “God” is just a word. For the agnostic, “God” is an intuition he has trouble proving logically. As for the religious — he runs the risk of relegating God to the house of prayer and study, but not to his home or heart. No matter how “religious,” every person must reckon with his own inconsistencies, whether between the public sphere and the private sphere, or between what we practice and what we preach. When our inconsistencies force us to come to terms with who we are and who we ought to be, we viscerally encounter Reality — larger than ourselves and the two-dimensional ways we’ve convinced ourselves to see things. Our inescapable sense that these moments are profoundly significant is vindicated when we learn that in Jewish consciousness they are nothing less than encounters with Hashem Himself. “God” becomes more than a word. We discover Him as a Reality.*

The decision to face the truth doesn’t make it jump out at us all at once. Our built-in defenses to facing ourselves truthfully are too good to allow that. But however honestly we commit to honesty, the epiphanies come more often. It starts with us. If we are truthful, the Truth comes to meet us halfway. If “I am to my Beloved,” then, “my Beloved is to me.”** אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי**
As we approach Rosh Hashana, we have before us a full month, the month of Elul אלול. It has no holidays, nor any particular laws mandated by the Torah. It was given to us as a blank canvas. The Jewish people painted on it two customs. The Ashkenazim sound the shofar every morning to wake us up from our daze, and the Sepharadim actually wake up earlier than normal to sing songs of desire to return to ourselves and our Creator.

It should be a month of epiphanies. A month of love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

Rabbi Jack

(Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi at Meor at Penn and as an Israel Programs educator. His areas of interest are individuality and how we can change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy. He is currently pursuing an MA in Education at Harvard.)

*Since וַה׳ אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת “and Hashem God is Reality” (Yermiyahu 10, paraphrased in the last 3 words of the Shma), and קָרוֹב ה׳ לְכָל־קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת” — “Hashem is close to all who call to Him — to all who call to Him truthfully” (Tehillim 145, “Ashrei”).

**Shir Hashirim 6, the allusion to the month of Elul in this verse is one of the many allusions throughout Torah to this coming month that starts on Shabbat. This one is the most famous.

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A Thought About Everything We Need

She doesn’t have the highest mountain peaks, nor the most majestic waterfalls. She doesn’t lay claim to raging rapids, nor lush jungles. Not massive oil fields, nor deep, diamond-rich mine shafts.

Excluding the West Bank, she is 12 miles at her narrowest waist. At her widest —just over an hour drive, east to west. You can zip through her length from Kiryat Shmoneh to Eilat in a hair over 5 hours — even keeping to the posted speed limit.

Her size could most aptly be described as “cute.”

Machu Pichu, the Great Wall, and the Pyramids are, without a doubt, more physically imposing than the old, weathered wall that sits in the heart of Jerusalem, and the dramatic photographs one can take in the Grand Canyon would likely garner more “likes” than those attempting to capture the booming silence of the Negev.

And yet, for almost everyone who has had the good fortune of spending time in Israel, something about it is unlike anyplace else.

Israel doesn’t have “the biggest” or “the tallest” anything.

In natural landmarks, she holds the record only for “the lowest” place above water (for what that’s worth as a claim-to-fame).

To be fully appreciated, Israel must be appreciated in her fullness — as a whole.

Snow caps and icy rivers adorn her head, and a bone-dry desert skirt down to her feet. Mountains cloaked in forests between her shoulders of ocean and lake, with one savory and one sweet. Her heart is protected by the embrace of stone hills, hand-planted with tall pines, one for every bar- and bat-mitzvah boy and girl in the Diaspora. And an oasis sprouting date trees dripping honey that border a crystalline sea of salt. Succulent vegetables and lip-smacking fruit — some grown in the earth and others in thin air — global seeds grown locally. Grapes of every kind and every terroir in a 40 mile spread that require 300 miles in California wine country. And dairy — creamy as can be.

In a morning commute, one can pass through three-and-a-half millennia, from the arches, domes and towers of synagogues, schools and palaces to the buzzing start-up hub of Silicon Wadi on the coast.

The political/religious spectrum from right to left can be traversed in 45 minutes from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

And at that old, weathered wall in the heart of the city — on a Friday night — all of life bursts forth with the mosaic of planet earth. Chassidim crowned like royalty with fur streimels. Yemenites who can enunciate lost syllables of the Hebrew AlephBet. Moroccans whose shrill melodies ascend like the smoke of the ketoret. Breslovers jumping in ecstatic prayer. A giant circle forms with hundreds of soldiers interspersed with yeshiva students, all enraptured in being part of something so much larger than themselves — even if that which they are a part of is one of the world’s smallest nations (0.2% of the world population).

And behind them, stand tourists from Kenya, Nigeria, China, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Germany — who came to see that famed wailing wall and found a people dancing in joyous songs of harmony.

We have been fooled to celebrate only “the best,” “the brightest,” “the most beautiful,” and “the mightiest.” We fall for it every time. Whether we’re sizing up the world, or no less tragically, looking at ourselves, and how we stack up against everyone else.

The lesson we’re taught where three continents, forests and desert, and Jews-from-all-over meet — is that what is meaningful is not where we stand compared to anyone else, but what we do with the gifts we were given. How we bring it all together in the way only we can. It is the land “in which [we] will not lack anything”* because we have our personal everything.

As we shift our entrenched perspectives, jealousy is transformed into partnership. It stops being a competition, and becomes the completion of a whole.

This can happen once we realize that we have everything we need to be ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack

*Devarim 8:9 according to Talmud Sukka 35a with Rashi.

(Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Advanced Programs at outaeor at UPenn. His areas of interest are individuality and how we change the way we think. He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem, and holds a BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy.)

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Parshas Ve'Eschan: A Small Presence

Despite sweltering heat, Chicagoans and their international guests were out in force. It was erev Lollapalooza and the city was gearing up for the big event. The freshly minted parks were eager to accept swarms of children and exhausted adults. And as we strolled around throughout the day I noticed one other tzitzit and kippah clad gentleman which made two of us, or rather, five of us if we include family. I felt the weight of the verse in this week parsha: ‘Hashem will scatter you among the peoples and you will be left few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you’.

Due to the fact that Jews often stick together in tight knit communities, it can feel like the opposite. And if we took the amount of media coverage as any indication of size it would appear that we made up at least a billion people. But the reality is we like to trumpet our 3,500 years of existence and if we grew naturally like any other civilization, again the numbers should be staggering. But we remain, ‘few in number’ only recently climbing to even keel from pre holocaust days.

So what is this statement, ‘few in number’? Is it a threat or a statement of fact; why does it have to be? And if our mission in life is to be a light unto the nations then it would seem that the more Jews to do the job, the better. To gain a foothold into the problem we have to view the role of the Jew a bit differently and it will also illuminate some of the issues we’ve had in exile.

The Talmud states the following: Says R’ Abba, it is better to be pursued than to be a pursuer, as there is no bird that is pursued more than the turtledoves and they are brought up to the alter. (Babba Kamma 93a.) What is the meaning of this? It means that things that have a natural spiritual quality to them will feature less prominently in the physical world. And those animals that dominate the physical world, the hunters, are not kosher or brought to the temple. They are too entrenched in ruling this world that they can’t connect to the next world. This goes the same with sheep, cows, and goats- they are the hunted and therefore get a place on the alter. This principle applies to the Jewish people. We have constantly been pursued and kept physically weak and it is no accident.

While we can enjoy the physical world and strive to do well, the message is clear. That is not where we are supposed to thrive and channel all our energies. There is no need for a Jewish empire and we shouldn’t be looking to dominate through physical means alone. We are small in number for a reason, we are supposed to float above the confines of material success. From that perch, though, small in number we are able to maintain spiritual leadership. [1]

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoni Ganger

(Rabbi Yoni Ganger graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a major in Psychology-Philosophy-Neuroscience and a minor in Spanish. He is currently in his tenth year of deferment from the University of Illinois Medical School, as he continues to polish his Rabbinic practice. He learned with the best Jewish educators in the world for nine years in Israel before taking over the helm at MEOR Harvard.)
See Netzach Israel chapter 15

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Ariella Bitton, UC Berkeley

I grew up in an interesting Jewish environment in that my mother is an American Ashkenazi and my father is a Moroccan Israeli. Growing up, we would celebrate holidays with my mom’s family in a more secular fashion. However, my experiences visiting my father’s family in Israel allowed me to gain a more authentic Israeli and religious cultural experience.

I attended Hebrew school for years, but after my Bat Mitzvah, I stopped going. After awhile, I became really disinterested and disconnected.

After transferring to Berkeley in my junior year, however, I joined Maimonides mainly because I was looking for a way to make friends and be with other Jewish students. It turned out that I loved the program! Through the weekly Maimonides sessions, I started exploring Judaism and it made me yearn to become more in touch with my Jewish heritage. Last year, I joined the Israel Action Committee at Berkeley, which furthered my interest and passion in Israel and Judaism.

I had heard many times growing up that my great-grandfather on my mother’s side was from a prominent religious family but it never really interested me much. My great-grandfather, Isaiah Halevi Horowitz, was the Chief Rabbi in Tsfat, Israel and was 11 generations from Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz, the Shiloh Ha-Kodesh. This great rabbi
was born in Prague in the 16th century and his teaching greatly influenced the development of the Chassidic movement. I never realized all of this, but after connecting with MEOR, I understood the significance of this heritage for the first time.

I have been coming to Israel every summer for the last five years—but the MEOR experience really did it for me. Before, I had experienced living and traveling in Israel, but that was it.

I didn’t really have a plan for what I wanted to do after college. Now after being part of MEOR, I know that I want to come back here and study for a year, as well as do some community service in Israel. I really love it here—my soul is here.

This has been the most amazing experience. I called my mom from Israel just to tell her how much I love it and how inspired I am. It’s a beautiful thing—I’m so happy!

Class of 2012, Media Studies Major

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