College Students and Content: Bringing Meaning to Alternative Winter Break Programs

by Rabbi Loren Sykes

Recently, I called for the creation of more post-Taglit alternative winter break programs in Israel focusing on Jewish content for college students Israel. This past January, the Conservative Yeshiva launched just such a program. During “Ta’amu u’R’u,” or “Taste & See,” twenty North American college students of diverse backgrounds and skill levels enjoyed twelve days of immersive Jewish learning on topics speaking directly to their minds and souls. Along the way, they visited Jerusalem attractions, had a lot of fun, and bonded as a group.

Certain outcomes from our alternative winter break program apply to virtually any short-term Israel experience. Students loved meeting and becoming friends with other participants from North America. They were thrilled to be in Israel. Cost determined participation. Finally, the trip played an important role in reigniting Jewish connections or advancing personal Jewish journeys.

At the same time, the program had very different impacts on participants, impacts about which the Jewish world, particularly those thinking about ways to increase engagement, should take note. Contrary to popular belief, not only are college students not turned off by Jewish content on their Israel experiences, many of them desire it. They want learning to be at the same high quality level they expect at their universities. Moreover, they want the learning to be at the same intellectual level and from the same milieu in which they live on a daily basis. Finally, participants appreciate having a trip akin to a colloquium – getting to know one city in depth – rather than a survey course-like visit, seeing all of Israel in ten days.

More than any other conclusion drawn from our Ta’amu u’R’u pilot alternative winter break program, however, the single most important is the desire among college students for more Jewish content in general and the opportunity to encounter that content in Israel in an egalitarian setting. With limited funding, we relied on “word of mouth” marketing to let people know about the opportunity in the hope that we would fill sixteen slots. Within days, however, over one hundred and twenty-five people filled out online applications. As we were completely transparent about the nature of the trip and the major focus on immersive Jewish learning in an egalitarian setting, the fact that so many people filled out applications is an indication that there is sufficient interest in content-based trips.

In personal evaluations of the program, sent to us several days after returning to the US, students emphasized time and again the trifecta that made the program successful: immersive Jewish learning, in Israel in an egalitarian setting. Participant comments tell the story best:

  • “Getting a chance to spend two weeks in learning in Jerusalem really gave me a chance to re-connect to an aspect of my life that has been less present than in the past.”
  • “This program has been absolutely invaluable in spurring me forward on a Jewish Journey that is egalitarian, intellectual, and energetic!”
  • “For the first time, I was able to look at the Talmud, Mishnah, and other Jewish texts in depth… I am interested in furthering my Jewish study of our rich literature, and in studying for just a few days, I realized how much more is out there to learn.”
  • “It gave me the chance to learn how to read and understand Talmudic texts in an egalitarian environment where questioning of the texts is encouraged. It gave me the opportunity to learn with other students who all came from different backgrounds but were committed to the mutual value of egalitarian learning. It also gave me the chance to connect with the Land of Israel as more than just a tourist.”
  • “I came into this program with little prior formal Jewish learning, and a little uncertainty, but I left with a new passion for and interest in exploring everything our tradition has to offer. I have so many new questions and I’m excited to continue the conversations over the course of my life.”

These themes came up over and over again in participant comments.

We must recognize that ongoing Jewish learning is the key to any vibrant Jewish future. If Judaism is defined by and limited to “feeling proud” yet lacking substance, breadth and depth, the chances of its survival are limited. In fact, it may be that settling for so little actually devalues Judaism in the eyes of those with whom we seek to engage. Placing the bar so low at the outset may be one way to get people in the door, a worthwhile way if there is high quality, content/experience based follow up. Sadly, it is all too often both the end and the means. As a result, serious exploration of and connection to Judaism is deemed only for the Orthodox, the elite, or the smallest sliver of all other Jews.

When offered a challenging and spiritual program, authentic and traditional in its approach to delving deeply into Jewish texts while bringing modern intellectual approaches and values to bear, students of a variety of skill and experience levels, affiliations, and personal backgrounds see value and dive in. Moreover, the experience need not be wrapped in shiny new packaging, couched in buzzwords or hidden in jargon in order to attract every kind of student imaginable. As long as the experience is presented authentically and honestly, curious students of all kinds will be interested.

At the Conservative Yeshiva, we are already working on Taste and See for this coming winter. Our goal is to bring 100 college students to Israel for twelve days of Jewish discovery, friendship and fun. Imagine for a moment how the Jewish world and future can be different five or ten years from now if we bring 100 or more such college students for this program each year. I think about it and see a brighter, more knowledgeable, more passionate, more connected and committed future than ever. I hope you do too.

Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Shirley and Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism. He lives in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem with his wife, Rebecca, and two of their three children.