By Rochelle Maruch Miller
If you had the power to save a Jewish life, would you hesitate for even a moment? To help make that happen, Alex and Esther Shulman, 538 Hazel Drive in Woodmere, are hosting a wine and sushi event to benefit MEOR NYU College Kiruv in Lower Manhattan on Thursday, August 16 at 7:30 p.m.
“The only thing standing between a Jew and intermarriage is education,” says Rabbi Aaron Eisemann, director of MEOR NYU, an outreach program connecting NYU and lower Manhattan college students to the beauty of their heritage through Shabbat dinners, Torah learning, fellowships, professional internships, international travel and mentoring.
“There are between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish university students in the New York area, but most of them have very little connection to Judaism, although many did attend Hebrew school. At MEOR NYU, we reach out to these students to make the connection,” Rabbi Eisemann said.
We are living in desperate times. The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds are not raising their children as Jewish at all. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate has soared to 70 percent, according to the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews.
“Our basic format is to stand on the street at a table and casually greet passing students, inquiring whether they are Jewish. If they say they are, we ask them, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Israel?’ About 10 to 15 percent of the students passing by stop to speak to us and want to know more about it. It’s a bit awkward standing on a street corner, especially when you are by yourself, but once you see the quality of the people and their desire to grow and learn more about their heritage, it is very exciting. We don’t push observance; what we are focusing upon is educating the students about their rich heritage to find out what Judaism is all about.”
Rabbi Eisemann, who has been an integral part of the kiruv fabric for the past 12 years, derives much nachas from facilitating each student’s spiritual journey, particularly when a MEOR NYU alumnus marries and raises a Torah-observant family.
“To participate in the growth and blossoming of a Jewish soul is an incredible privilege,” he says.
The first seeds to this spiritual growth are planted during the aforementioned encounter with the students on the street. Those who express interest in signing up for a free trip to Israel leave their name and phone number and are contacted soon thereafter by a MEOR NYU staff member.
“We have students who are on the street at the table, reaching out to connect other students to MEOR NYU to learn about their roots,” Rabbi Eisemann explained. “They are so appreciative of how they have been inspired by MEOR NYU, they want to ‘give back’ by reaching out to others and help them connect to Judaism and become part of the community.”
During the follow-up phone call to the prospective MEOR NYU member, a meeting is arranged at a neutral venue, such as a Starbucks or other coffee shop. There, devoid of any pressure, the education process begins.
“We tell them about all the programs we offer at MEOR NYU, such as the Israel trip, Shabbatons, learning program, and fellowships, and discuss what MEOR NYU is all about—our initiatives and our community,” said Rabbi Eisemann “It is usually through a trip that we make the connection.”
Indeed, it is a connection that will forever impact the students’ lives.
“This is my first approach to Jewish thought since my bar mitzvah,” attests Paul Leybov a MEOR NYU community member. “The rabbis are so approachable. There is always a place to go to feel connected.”
“MEOR NYU has changed my perspective of Judaism” Leybov continued. “I’ve come to better appreciate Judaism because I understand it,” comments Paul. “If not for MEOR, you’d have people calling themselves Jewish without knowing what Judaism is all about.”
Each one of us has the power to save Jewish lives, and performing this tremendous mitzvah is well within our reach.
“Many of our donors and supporters say that they see these kids on the street and they want to do something,” says Rabbi Eisemann. “By supporting MEOR, that is what you are doing — you are enabling us to stand out on the street and hand out flyers and introduce them to their heritage and to what could be for them a very rich and beautiful Jewish life.”
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.