Ari Breslauer, a native of Bronx, N.Y., left Hebrew school at the age of 8 and never had a bar mitzvah. But he eventually made his way back to Jewish education. In fact, he just spent two weeks this summer touring Israel, exploring Jewish texts and discussing life’s issues with rabbis and their wives, along with nearly 40 college students and recent graduates from all over the world selected to participate in IsraeLinks, a project of Chabad on Campus International.
“IsraeLinks is a unique opportunity for students to live, learn and connect to their heritage, their land and their people,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International. “Their local Chabad on Campus planted the seeds that when in Israel sprout in unimaginable ways.”
“The program allows students to gain a deeper, more intimate understanding of Judaism and Israel in a non-threatening environment,” said Rabbi Yossi Witkes, who, together with his wife, Chaya, directs IsraeLinks and serves as Chabad on Campus’s unofficial liaison to students who relocate to Israel.
Breslauer, an online graduate student at American Military University from Raleigh, N.C., participated with the support of Rabbi Zalman and Yehudis Bluming, co-directors of the Rohr Chabad of Durham/Chapel Hill and Duke University in North Carolina. Students who are involved with Chabad on Campus are recommended by shluchim, Chabad’s emissaries, and are specifically selected for the program.
Since some participants have already been to Israel courtesy of the Birthright Israel program and most are looking to learn, so organizers make sure to plan trips that are “off the beaten path,” with a strong educational component, Witkes said. A trip to a farm, for example, sparked conversation about certain biblical commandments—such as tithing and leaving fields fallow in the sabbatical year—that regulate Israeli agriculture.
In order to give the students a varied experience, the tour is first based out of the Old City of Safed— home of the 16th-century Kabbalistic renaissance—before relocating to Jerusalem, the cultural and spiritual heart of Israel.
IsraeLinks started in 2007; so far, there have been a total of 14 trips. Currently, there are two summer trips and one during winter break, but organizers say the program is slated to grow.
‘Growth and Serious Learning’
“The trips are led by very learned rabbis and rebbitzens, many of whom direct Chabad centers on campus, and who bring a unique mix of scholarship and inspiration to the program,” added Witkes. “Equally important are the students themselves, who feed off each other, creating a powerful hothouse for growth and serious learning.”
Students praised the ability to experience the places they were studying.
Breslauer said that spending Tisha B’Av—the Ninth of Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples—in Jerusalem was made especially poignant by group leader Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson. “He is a fantastic lecturer, and when he described why we are so sad and what it means to us, I felt like it was my personal tragedy. We started out on a Jerusalem rooftop, where we were able to see the site of the horrific events 2,000 years ago. When we went down to the Western Wall [the Kotel] where the devastation took place and we saw people mourning, it impacted me even more.”
Dialogue in the Grottoes
Rachel Graff, a fellow participant who just graduated from the University of North Carolina with a master’s degree in exercise physiology, said the trip was “the most amazing two weeks of my life. The things we talked about were really deep. The instructors—the rabbis, the rebbitzens or both of them together—were very knowledgeable, and facilitated real learning and discussion. The fact that we would then go out and experience what we had just seen in the texts made it all that much more meaningful.”
But meaning comes in many packages, according to each individual.
“One of the greatest conversations I had,” recalled Breslauer, “was held as we biked near the Rosh HaNikra grottoes. I was enjoying the beautiful Mediterranean coast with Rabbi Boz Werdiger, and we started talking about traditional Jewish marriages and the Torah approach to sexuality. I was blown away by the beauty of it all. It was a really powerful conversation—and there were so many more like it.”
A Shared Commitment
The Scharf family helped fund the program, particularly this year’s summer trip.
Andrew Scharf, principal benefactor, spent time with the students in Israel. To them, he said: “There is no need to thank me. The thanks goes to you—busy college students who took from your own vacation time to commit yourself to exploring your Jewish identity.”
The Scharf family has always been a big supporter of Chabad on Campus. The oldest son, Andrew, said felt that sponsoring a program for students to experience Israel was an excellent way to honor his family. As primary benefactor of IsraeLinks, Andrew dedicated the winter trip to his father Michael’s 70th birthday and the two summer trips to his younger brother William, for the love and respect they share.
Gordon said the participants of the highly subsidized trip “received a gift from the community because the sponsors believe in the importance of every individual experiencing and accessing this opportunity for growth, which cannot be had anywhere else.”
Rabbi Zalman Bluming with students in the Old City of Safed during an IsraeLinks tour.
With the trips behind them, participants said the experience will continue to influence the course of their lives.
“Before I went on IsraeLinks I had big dreams for my career and I had a very strong draw to Judaism. I felt I could grow in each area separately, but not together,” explained Graff, who plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in 2014. “Through talking to the rebbitzens, for the first time I was able to open my mind to the possibility that I can do both.”
Witkes noted that many of the students opt to remain in Israel to study at Israeli universities, intern with Israeli organizations or advance their Jewish education at schools like the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. “We stay in touch, and our home really becomes their home,” he said. “In fact, we recently moved to a new apartment and my little daughter commented: ‘There are three bathrooms: one for the parents, one for the kids and one for the students.’ ”
Breslauer, a veteran of the U.S. military, said he plans to stay in Israel to study.
“It was a life-changing two weeks for me. I came to the program with lots of questions about Judaism, and I was expecting lots of answers,” he explained. “During the course of the trip, I realized how deep the questions really are, and that I would need much more time to really understand. I am going to study at Mayanot to learn more. If five months are not enough, I may need to extend my stay even longer.”