For over 14 years, the Emet Leaders Fellowship has provided thousands of unaffiliated Jewish college students with an introduction to Judaism and their first Shabbos experience. It is a program that has inspired young adults to make a deeper commitment to Judaism as they set the course for their professional and personal lives. This past March, Emet’s fellowships were in full swing at St. John’s University, Stony Brook University, and Baruch College, as well as in Forest Hills for students from multiple campuses. Students were in the midst of weekly learning sessions with Emet educators and were participating in impactful Shabbatons. They were even planning the program’s summer highlight – a trip to historical sites in Poland and Prague. Then, suddenly, the semester was paused when campuses were forced to shutter their doors in response to COVID-19. In the throes of this uncertainty, Emet’s educators and students rose to the challenge of sustaining the seeds of religious growth that had been planted.
“When COVID-19 hit, we immediately thought of the impact it would have on our students, who were so receptive to Judaism and starting to incorporate Torah study and mitzvos into their daily lives,” said Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Emet’s Campus Director. “We quickly shifted our classes to Zoom, so the learning could continue for each fellowship on schedule, with minimal interruptions.”
Students welcomed their familiar routine with Emet, even in a virtual format. The team made adjustments and added interactive tools to ensure students were engaged and still felt connected while apart. This included the debut of an Emet “EQ” trivia game. Based on the popular “HQ” mobile game show app, Emet’s version of the game challenged the students to answer questions about the topics they just learned and also fun facts about Emet. The incentives for participating and paying attention were high, with prizes like Amazon gift cards up for grabs. The result was an average of 80 students participating in fellowships weekly.
“I saw from the beginning that students took their learning with Emet seriously. I was touched by how involved they still were in our studies, and I made sure to be creative and keep them interested,” said Ms. Esther Tepfer, Campus Mekareves. “I felt like they really needed us during this sensitive time, and that we were ‘essential’ to their spiritual needs. The circumstances also made them more open to appreciate what they were learning about Hashem and Judaism.”
In addition to continuing with classes, Emet’s educators went out of their way to have one-on-one sessions with each student to check in with them and provide individualized learning, mentoring, and attention. “Our relationships with our students are the foundation of everything we do at Emet,” said Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg, Emet’s Co-founder and Director. “We had a responsibility to be there for them with consistency and spiritual guidance, at a time when they were navigating a new normal. Our team was actually busier than ever.”
Key components of Emet’s fellowships are the incredible Shabbatons that the students attend to experience Shabbos first-hand. In “normal” times, Rabbi Kigel and his wife, Rebbetzin Devorah Kigel, are known for opening their home in Passaic to countless students, and for many it is their first Shabbos.
“Our Shabbos experience makes our students part of our family and allows them to focus for 25 hours and truly feel what it is like to be an observant Jew,” said Rabbi Kigel. “It was a tremendous adjustment for us to not be able to host students in our home at this time. We were fortunate that we had already held a few Shabbatons for this group, but we wanted to help them continue on their own.”
Keeping Shabbos can be daunting for a beginner, but the home-based reality of quarantine presented an opportunity for Emet’s students. The Emet team encouraged them to observe Shabbos and use the time for a much-needed break from technology, and a chance to really connect with their families.
“We were there to guide them and we reinforced how to keep Shabbos during our classes, one-on-ones, and with taped video messages,” said Rabbi Kigel. “We broke it down into five simple steps: no technology, no creating fire (including cooking, lights, car), no writing, more spiritual and less mundane conversation, spend time with family and friends, have awesome food and a l’chayim or two for religious purposes!”
At a time when Emet students were looking for a deeper spiritual connection, Shabbos provided the answer – and the impact has been felt by students and their families.
“Emet opened my mind to keeping Shabbos. Before COVID-19, my older sister was the only one who kept Shabbos in our house. I didn’t see the point. I always questioned things, and my fellowship teachers at Emet gave me real answers that I understood,” said Sapir Kavod. “On a Friday, as soon as quarantine was put in force, I remember thinking, ‘How hard could it be?’ I shut my phone and my light off for the first time and joined my sister in keeping Shabbos. Not long after, my mom and two younger siblings also joined us. Shabbos has become a part of my life and I have to thank Emet for helping me change without forcing or pushing me. They just gave me the knowledge and opportunity. I can’t believe that I went 18 years not knowing how amazing it feels to just relax and connect in a spiritual way.”
As the spring semester wound down in May, one-on-one sessions continued through June. Finally, in early July with Phase 3, it was appropriate to start the fellowship summer session in-person. A group of approximately 40 students and five Emet educators met for a socially distant evening of study at Congregation Beth Gavriel. Masks didn’t get in the way of the feeling of excitement to finally be in the same room.
“Our students were so ready to transition away from Zoom and we followed the safety guidelines closely to determine the right time,” said Rabbi Kigel. “The energy of that first session, and the ones that have followed, has been amazing. At Emet, we’re all about hugging; but for now, being in close proximity is exciting enough.”
“I feel tremendous pride in our Emet family of educators and students for their commitment to learning during this challenging time,” said Rabbi Rutenberg. “We are also grateful that Emet’s fellowships this year have been dedicated in memory of Sylvia Schwartz.”
Emet’s summer fellowship will continue through August, and the team is exploring the possibility of an outdoor retreat, safety permitting.
For further information on Emet programs and weekly class schedules, visit www.emetoutreach.org.