A three-day Yom Tov can be a daunting undertaking, but the young women from Emet’s Step It Up program were ready for the challenge. Accompanied by Ms. Shira Fendel, Emet’s Women’s Director, 20 students embarked on a meaningful Shavuos experience in Lakewood, New Jersey. The group was joined by 20 girls who are students of Ms. Chevi Garfinkel, an acclaimed lecturer and educator. It was a Yom Tov full of learning, connecting, and inspiring one another.
While they came from diverse religious backgrounds, the experience was designed so the girls could get to know and learn from each other. Emet rented a beautiful, large vacation home, where they stayed together and enjoyed all evening meals as well as divrei Torah and lectures. During the day, on Shabbos and Yom Tov, the group separated and were hosted by local families.
There were ample opportunities for the girls to talk and gain inspiration from peers. The more observant girls served as role models and answered practical questions about what it’s like to be religious. The Emet students impressed the other participants with their commitment to learning and sincere interest in Judaism. This was especially evident by the sense of camaraderie on the evening of Shavuos, when most girls stayed up all night to learn, and the girls from stronger backgrounds were paired with Emet students to guide them.
“This was the second Shavuos that I’ve spent with Emet. I was initially drawn to the program because of Chevi, but I soon realized how special Shira and the girls at Emet are. Both of my experiences were warm, meaningful, and relaxed. Each person was encouraged to share her thoughts about Hashem’s presence in our lives. That helped us feel comfortable and connect on a deeper level. There were girls from all different backgrounds and levels of observance, and everyone was very accepting of each other. It was just Jewish women supporting and guiding one another,” said Bluma Balsam, a resource room teacher at Bnos Malka Academy in Queens. “I’ve never felt so much spirituality over a Yom Tov. After last year, I decided to become involved in the Step It Up program. Even though I’ve always been observant, I’ve been truly inspired by my friends at Emet.”
A highlight of the experience was the uplifting speakers. Chevi Garfinkel spoke before each meal about finding fulfillment in life. Mrs. Stephanie Rosenbaum, a former attorney who now has a private psychotherapy practice, enthralled the girls on the first day as she detailed her journey to Judaism. On the second day of Yom Tov, Dr. David Lieberman, a well-known psychologist and author, spoke about how to stay happy and grateful. Rabbi Avi Cassel, Regional Director of Olami North America, also visited the group and walked over an hour each way to present awards to two deserving Emet students.
“I did not grow up celebrating Shavuos. When Shira invited me last year for the first time, I had two major final exams coming up for dental school, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to go away. I decided to take a chance, and it was one of the most meaningful holidays I’ve ever spent. I couldn’t wait to come back,” said Ronna Abaeyv, NYU Dental School student. “The Shavuos program was a really impactful experience. It was especially important for me to connect with other young women who are also pursuing their careers and balancing their religious lives. We all kept saying this year that it felt like we were ‘talking to each other’s neshamos.’ That’s the type of deep spiritual connection that Shira and Chevi facilitated. It was also extra special that they taught me a Hebrew song and I was able to sing along by the end of Yom Tov.”
“I would call our Shavuos program a win-win situation,” said Shira Fendel. “The achdus – the unity – that was created over this Yom Tov was amazing. It was wonderful to see people from different backgrounds connecting on deep levels. It was a huge kiddush Hashem, and it shows that the act of connecting Jews of all backgrounds is something that is reciprocal and can help every Jew grow.”