Rutgers University students are heading to a local historic synagogue for a weekly immersion in Jewish learning while providing the shul with “a new rejuvenation.”
Rutgers Jewish Xperience, a Lakewood-based, Orthodox-run outreach group, is providing one-on-one mentoring and dinner for students at Congregation Poile Zedek in New Brunswick.
Describing it as “an awesome experience” to see about 100 students paired off to learn Talmud, Torah, and other Jewish texts, the synagogue’s Rabbi Abraham Mykoff turned to the Bible to comment on the program’s effect.
“In the book of Ecclesiastes it states, ‘And the sun rises and the sun sets,’” he said. “Our sages attribute this verse to the fate and history of the Jewish people from their ascendancies through their tragedies, and time and again we see the reestablishment of the Jewish people in a new setting.”
The Jewish Xperience students who have now found a home at the 109-year-old congregation, said Mykoff, “can provide a new rejuvenation” at a synagogue that “has in the past served the Russian community and can once again be a place that shines forth the light of Torah for our Jewish students.”
Organizers describe the program, known as The Sinai Xperience, as an advanced track of Torah learning where students can engage in in-depth discussion and debate. RJX aims to provide students with what may be their first exposure to Jewish learning and ritual since their Hebrew school days and an entrance to other Jewish experiences.
Those completing the program, which includes participation in one Shabbaton and a Friday night oneg Shabbat, are given a voucher worth up to $400 for a Jewish trip anywhere in the world. The trips are paid for by private donors to the organization.
The group also offers a Maimonides Leadership Fellowship Program, the flagship project of Jewish Awareness America, a Michigan-based Orthodox outreach group. The program pays college students $300 for completion of a three-month program, including keeping a journal, participation in at least two Shabbatons, and visiting an observant Jewish community. The program is held at Rutgers Hillel on Tuesday nights and features a series of speakers talking about the role Judaism plays in their own lives.
‘My life source’
On Feb. 8 Sinai Xperience students and mentors, or “partners,” gathered at Poile Zedek. They sat facing each other in pews in the sanctuary.
“Many of our partners are from the community, but we try to find study partners who are younger because we think they relate to our students better,” said RJX codirector Rabbi Yehoshua Lewis.
“I never had any formal Jewish upbringing, just culture,” said Lana Voskoboynik, a junior from Cherry Hill. “I don’t think you can really appreciate that culture without understanding the intellectual part of Judaism and Torah.”
Her mentor, Channah Yudkowsky, comes into New Brunswick from Manhattan, where she is a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, to spend 90 minutes teaching.
Being around others with less extensive knowledge of Judaism than hers, said Yudkowsky, has challenged her to think about subjects she never would have otherwise and has ultimately broadened her own knowledge.
“This is so real,” said Yudkowsky. “This is so deep I feel as if I’m not teaching. I feel I am learning. I can relate to being a haver [friend]. I love it so much it’s like my life source. I can’t wait to come back next week.”
Dave Shoner, an investment analyst from Long Branch, has been part of the mentoring program for several years. “It was important to give back to the community,” he said. “I keep coming back because I find it very rewarding.”
Eric Weinberg, a graduate student from Toms River, is learning with his mentor, Jonathan Teitelbaum of Edison. Weinberg said he is determined to learn all 613 mitzvot required of Jews.
“It’s really been awesome to set a goal for myself and work toward learning that,” he explained. “I really value what I’ve learned and plan to stay on track with it.”
For more information on the organization, visit rutgersjewishxperience.web.officelive.com.