College student assimilation may have finally met its match. Emet Outreach’s Fellowship for beginners, one of its longest-running and most popular programs, is on a mission to rescue students from the brink and show them the beauty of Torah.
Spanning five campuses in Queens and Long Island, the Emet Fellowship gives college-age students with limited religious background or Jewish education the experience of a lifetime. Each week, students enjoy inspiring classes, delicious food, socializing with friends, and an intellectual and emotionally inspiring taste of Torah – often for the first time in their lives.
In addition to being a gateway to becoming more observant, and possibly a precursor to a yeshivah or seminary experience, Emet’s warm staff members develop meaningful relationships that often last throughout college, after graduation, and even into married life.
Combating Local Assimilation
Sadly, thousands of Jewish boys and girls graduate public high school every year with little connection to their heritage or identity, despite living a short distance from Queens’ numerous thriving frum communities.
To make matters worse, the post-millennial generation is fraught with challenges. As Rabbi Nissim Musheyev, Director of Emet’s Higher Level Boys’ Division, explains, “Assimilation is at an all-time high. Many Bukharian students are second-generation Americans, and things that were not accepted years ago are accepted now. When their parents came here from Russia, they never considered assimilating at this level. They had a Jewish identity and core values. With this generation, nothing’s holding them back.”
For many, the Emet Fellowship is the ideal solution to discover their heritage, become Torah observant, and live meaningful lives. It’s a crash-course in Judaism, providing knowledge, inspiration, and access to talmidei chachamim and mentors who help them grow and discover what it means to be a Jew.
Five Thriving Campuses
Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Emet’s Campus Director, oversees the program, and many Emet staff members participate, including Emet’s Director Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Associate Director Mrs. Rivka Muskat, Rabbi Dovid Delman, Rabbi Michael Fuzaylov, Rabbi Nissim Musheyev, Program Director Sara Basiratmand, and Campus Coordinator Ali Lakofsky.
The program is located on five campuses: St. John’s University, Queens College, Baruch College, Stony Brook University, and the flagship program is a cross-campus evening fellowship in Forest Hills. Each semester is 12 weeks long, and in addition to weekly classes, students participate in 2 shabbatons per semester. At the end of the year, the program culminates with a life-changing educational trip to Israel or Eastern Europe, which gives students a chance to share an unforgettable experience with peers, explore their newly discovered religion firsthand, and bond with rabbis and staff.
The entire semester is completely free, including a complimentary light dinner served each week. Even the trip is heavily subsidized, with students only paying a fraction of the cost. Generous sponsors help support the program.
Rabbi Fuzaylov, Coordinator of the Forest Hills Program, says that staff members’ number one focus is forging a connection, right from the start. “Before students join, we interview them to see if they’re a good fit. There is an added benefit: It enables us to build a personal relationship and start developing a bond immediately. That way, when the program begins, students already feel comfortable with the staff, which is a big advantage.”
An Intellectual and Inspiring Curriculum
Each session lasts two hours. During the first 30 minutes, students enjoy a delicious catered dinner, and socialize with staff and peers. Then the entire group (between 25 and 60 students at each location) gathers together for a dynamic, intellectual, and inspiring half hour class given by one of Emet’s rabbis. For the final hour, students split up into small groups (ranging from three to eight students) and are taught by staff members.
Every aspect of the program is fully interactive. Rabbi Kraft explains that lectures and lessons are presented in an engaging style, to encourage questions and stir thought and analysis. “To inspire, learning cannot be passive; it needs to be active. That makes them want to connect, and brings out their desire.” He added, “It’s more than imparting information; it’s about engaging students and getting them involved and responsive.”
Rabbi Musheyev says they work hard to create a warm, comfortable, and friendly atmosphere, where students feel like they’re part of a family. “The Emet Fellowship provides a Jewish educational experience in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, loving, and caring environment. Students get to be themselves.” He added, “Nobody is forced to be there. They’re coming voluntarily, giving up their personal time to learn and grow.”
Since students have no Jewish education or background, this is their first taste of religion, and staff members strategize to make it an extremely positive experience that inspires students to think and develop.
Rabbi Kraft, Emet’s Co-founder and Director, often gives the opening group lecture. He chooses fundamental topics, such as Emunah, the Existence of G-d, Matan Torah, Oral Transmission, the Purpose of Creation, and other areas that open students’ minds and get them to explore topics they probably have not thought about before.
“We’re not trying to prove things at this point,” explains Rabbi Kraft. “The purpose of my class is to expand students’ minds, get them to think, and make them realize that the Torah is more than they think it is.”
After the introductory lecture, small group learning is comprised of an array of topics, to show students what it means to live life as a Torah-observant Jew. Topics include Shabbos, kashrus, upcoming yamim tovim, and other relevant areas.
The groups are comfortable and informal, so that students feel free to be themselves and ask any question on their minds, about virtually any topic. This enables staff to know what’s on students’ minds, so they can answer their questions and help them with their personal struggles. It also gets students to open up, helping staff develop a personal and substantive connection.
Lessons are designed to demystify Torah observance and teach students, step by step, how to live a fulfilling Torah life. Staff members also impart the message that Judaism is unique in that it’s not merely about Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Living a life governed by Torah and mitzvos is inherently rewarding and leads to a happier life in this world, too.
Emet’s leaders believe it’s very important for the individual learning to be text-based. “Using a text shows students they’re not just learning the teacher’s personal opinions or ideas,” explains Rabbi Kraft. “We’re teaching something based on tradition, handed down through the generations over 3,000 years.”
Beyond the 10-12 classes, trips and Shabbatons bring the Emet Fellowship experience to a new level. For most students, the Shabbaton is the first time they’re experiencing an authentic Shabbos. They spend time with frum families, enjoy an uplifting Friday night oneg, hear many divrei Torah and words of inspiration, and Shabbos culminates in an unforgettable musical Havdalah. It’s a positive experience that shows students that keeping Shabbos is joyous and fulfilling, and it’s within their reach.
At the end of each semester, students attend a moving graduation ceremony and are issued a certificate. The students express their gratitude that they have experienced Judaism in such a tangible way for the first time. Each student speaks from the heart and it’s an especially uplifting evening. At the end of the year, students enjoy a trip to Israel or Europe led by staff members, filled with fun activities, inspiring tours, and rich educational experiences.
The ten-day trip is an unparalleled opportunity for growth. It gives students a first-hand vivid taste of their Jewish heritage, which brings to life what they’ve spent months studying. It gives them a chance to bond with peers, as they go through a life-changing journey of discovery as a group. And the trip allows rabbis and teachers to spend a great deal of personal one-on-one time with students – answering questions, engaging in personal discussions, and bringing their connection to a stronger level. Many students are inspired to deepen their commitment to Judaism and Torah observance.
Only the Beginning
Rabbi Musheyev says that as valuable as the learning is, the real goal of the Emet Fellowship is to foster a long-term commitment. “This is a springboard for students, opening the door to a Jewish lifestyle and mitzvah observance.”
Gradually, teachers encourage students to move forward and continue to grow. They often move on to Emet’s higher-level programming, and become inspired to strengthen their observance and begin keeping Shabbos. Students are also encouraged to spend time learning in yeshivah, where they can create a foundation for a Torah-centric lifestyle and eventually raising a frum family.
The Emet Fellowship is a beacon of light in the college “wilderness,” where students on the brink of total assimilation can build a connection to a 3,000-year heritage. Over its 14-year history, Emet Outreach has impacted over 6,000 students, and virtually all of them began their connection through the Emet Fellowship program. It begins as a weekly two-and-a-half hour class with food, socializing, and learning about something new and exciting. As time goes on, relationships develop, along with an appreciation of what it means to be a Jew. As students discover the beauty of Torah, and spend time enjoying Shabbos with frum families, they strengthen their commitment to Torah observance.
Emet’s approach to kiruv is based on building long-lasting relationships with students and guiding them through each stage of life. Its fellowship program is where seeds are planted, and the entire curriculum and atmosphere are specially engineered to give students the foundation they need to ultimately live a robust Torah-observant life.
Emet Fellowship 2018-2019 is generously dedicated in memory of Libby Schwartz a”h. Throughout her life, Libby was extremely dedicated to supporting Jewish learning and continuity. This is the perfect tribute to her legacy.
For more information about Emet’s Fellowship or its many other programs, visit EmetOutreach.org.