Dovid and Miri Birk drove from Ithaca, N.Y., to Danbury, Conn., with their 16-month-old son Mendel this weekend to celebrate a very special anniversary. It was the 15th-year celebration for the Chabad-Lubavitch run Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, a Jerusalem-based educational center that’s been key to both of their lives.

“It’s really a cornerstone of our lives,” Miri Birk said of Mayanot’s learning programs and its community of students, alumni and instructors. “It was an amazing opportunity to see all of our old friends and people that we learned with, people we went through this transformational experience with.”

In addition to coordinating free Birthright Israel trips to the Holy Land for Jewish college students, Mayanot partners with the Chabad on Campus International Foundation and campus Chabad Houses to bring students to Jerusalem for a taste of textual-based Jewish study. Other programs for young professionals offers a few weeks of yeshiva study during the summer, while other learning tracks for men and women see students spend a year or more at Mayanot.

For some, Mayanot represents a continuation of lifelong Jewish learning, while others may attend without having had any previous Jewish education.

“One thing all people who come to Mayanot have in common is that they really have a love for learning, and a desire to further their [explorations] about their Jewish identity,” said Birk, who attended the University of Virginia and spent a year at Mayanot between 2008 and 2009 after finishing school. “I don’t think there’s a better place to connect with what it means to be a Jew than Israel.”

While at Mayanot, Birk befriended young women from all over the world.

“Today, they’re my closest friends,” she said. “Our kids play together.”

The Connecticut retreat brought together a sampling of men and women from Mayanot’s 15 years of operation to the Danbury Plaza for the chance to reflect on what many recall as a very powerful time in their lives. While their children took part in special programming, the parents also got the chance to return to yeshiva a little bit, cracking open their texts and studying deep Jewish concepts.

Mayanot dean Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner said the intention was to create a spiritually-uplifting weekend. Many guests stayed up until 2:00 in the morning Friday night inspiring one another with tales from their lives and sharing how Maynot played such a strong role in their formative years. Key presentations came from Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and Yaakov Cohen, chairman of Mayanot’s board.

“It was designed to be an oasis from day to day life,” he said. “So it should be both intellectually stimulating and spiritually elevating and inspiring.”

But the event also had a celebratory element, as participants toasted the 10 Mayanot couples married in just the last six months.

Gestenter said participants lit up when they realized that though many of them had never met, they had so much in common.

“It created an energy that was far beyond the programming,” he said. “It’s really hard to put into words.”

Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, Mayanot executive director, said he has already been inundated with emails, letters and calls asking for the reunion to become an annual event. He said he hopes to be able to offer such an opportunity next year for alumni and also prospective students interested in a taste of the program.

This year’s event, which gave participants a chance in 48 hours to feel like they just returned to yeshiva, also kicked off the launch of an alumni association.

“If they’re in touch with their friends with the same experiences, they can have that same yeshiva experience in their day-to-day lives,” said Shemtov. “When all these individuals gather together, only good can result for mankind.”

Aaron Lazer and Gani Goodman came from Morristown, N.J., for the event. He spent 2006 at Mayanot, which led to his later enrollment at the Rabbinical College of America and to meeting his wife, a fellow Mayanot alumna.

“When Mayanot calls for anything, we’re involved,” he said. “Not just because of our history with them, but because we love them and they do amazing things.”

When buzz about a possible reunion surfaced this year, Goodman said they jumped at the chance to meet the rest of the Mayanot family.

He said he liked that programs were available for people at various points in their lives, as is a hallmark of the Mayanot experience. He added that he also valued the emphasis on building connections for the long term.

The couple returned home Sunday with a care package from Mayanot which had been left in their room. In it was a prayer book with a Mayanot stamp on it.

“We were all very comfortable and treated very nicely,” said Goodman. “It was a high class experience.”