Ilana Kurshan, walked in with a warm smile on her face and her adorable baby in hand,
we all instantly brightened up excited for an inspiring shiur klali. She started off by asking the
question “why do we bother learning Torah when we forget so much of what we learn?” It
seemed like a trick question. Then Kurshan began talking about how learning Daf Yomi became
her coping mechanism through dark times. I was struck by how she was able to take such a
troubling moment, a real obstacle, and turn it around and say, “Talmud isn’t a book for people
looking for answers, it’s for people asking the questions.” This really resonated with me as I
thought about why I am here on Nachshon. For me, the experience was about seeing Israel and
its culture from a new perspective and asking questions to deepen that understanding. Ilana
taught us that despite difficult times, her learning never stops.
Reflecting on this now, I could not help but think of a message I received in my family WhatsApp group from my aunt in quarantine in Israel. Although she was stuck in her home, without her friends, children and grandchildren, she sent a picture smiling from ear to ear with the caption “Daf Yomi from quarantine!” This is what Ilana’s message exemplified to me: that in spite of chaos we must not forget the wisdom of the Torah.
Ilana led us in reading the Kohelet Rabbah which used the metaphor of wisdom being
like a vessel with which we fill and empty ourselves. Another metaphor in our text referred to
students as “ever-flowing fountains,” as we are constantly replenishing and cycling through
ourselves the “waters of Torah.” This was a beautiful and refreshing take on continuing our
Jewish learning. I walked out of the learning session feeling a number of emotions. Her words ignited feelings which surpassed inspiration. Ilana had opened up to us about her own story and did so in such an authentic manner which made me realize the importance of the phrase so often repeated by our community: לזכור ולא לשכוח.
Getting off the plane to start this new experience was a whirlwind of emotions but going right
into the opening conference made the transition much smoother. On our first night here, we all
gathered outside and were put to the test to see how well we could work together. Attempting to accomplish each task was difficult in and of itself never mind the overpowering jetlag we all
were feeling. Before we began our first puzzle, we split up into random groups which naturally
caused some anxiety about not being with those we already knew, but as soon as we were
grouped together that anxiety went away. I knew that the people I was surrounded by were about to become some of my best friends that would be by my side through the entirety of the semester and it was important to be open to the experience. Each puzzle that we were presented with allowed a new person in the group to showcase their abilities and lead the group to success.
Throughout the activity we were focused on our group’s mission but also were watching the
groups around us, cheering them on and laughing at the challenge that seemed impossible. After completing the night, Nachshon’s mission was clear. At the core of the program is cohort
building and finding ways to work with people you don’t know in order to complete the task at
hand. Starting off our time together in this way created an environment filled with trust and
created a platform of communication between one another. Although getting off the plane and
entering an unfamiliar space came with a lot of unknowns, establishing this bond with our cohort enabled me to feel comfortable moving forward with everything Nachshon had to offer.
During the final week of January 2020, I landed in Israel to participate in the Nachshon Project with 33 other Jewish college students and leaders from across America. To my surprise, I did not know a single one of them from beforehand, so the first few days of our program consisted of long rounds of my favorite game: Jewish Geography, where we each list off what colleges/camps/day schools we have attended and try to figure out how many people we know in common. This game always proves to be a quick way to make the Jewish world feel smaller and start to build a sense of community.
Throughout our weeklong Opening Conference in Zichron Yaakov, I gradually got to know my fellow Nachshon Fellows better and started to feel a sense of community with them. We bonded over our love of camp, the beauty in Israel, the most delicious hummus, and our favorite zemirot to sing on Friday night at our oneg. We had many opportunities to learn with each other from various speakers, and I was so inspired to be learning in an environment where my peers were not afraid to ask challenging questions or think critically about their own opinions. On the bus to Jerusalem at the end of the week, I reflected in my journal about being so excited to continue to learn with and from this group for the upcoming semester.
In addition to excitement, there was a tangible nervous energy on the bus as we drove up to the Student Village on Mount Scopus. While we were all eager to finally get settled in Jerusalem, meet our roommates, and start Ulpan, we were also hesitant of a new beginning: new school, new routine, new city, new people. Yet, I felt reassured in confronting those first day of school jitters because I already had a solid community and support system after a week of bonding together. I know that my transition into Hebrew University was so much smoother because of the friends I had already made in my Nachshon Cohort.
On December 24th, 2019 my Abba, my father, passed away suddenly while we were
on a family vacation in Hawaii. While I quickly realized that my experience in Israel was
not going to be exactly as I had always dreamed, it was never a question if I was going
to still be participating in The Nachshon Project this semester. As a proud father,
dedicated to the Jewish community, he was beyond excited about this opportunity for
me. In fact, he drove down to my college, the University of Delaware, the day after I was
accepted to Nachshon to celebrate. Since the start of college I had dreamed of being
part of the Nachshon Project because of the impact it would have on the rest of my life,
but I knew the experience would be even more impactful now.
I spent the week of shiva and first month of mourning with my family in New
Jersey. On the day of shloshim (the thirty-day period following burial) I boarded a plane
to Israel to start this once in a lifetime experience. As part of my mourning process, I am
saying kaddish everyday for 11 months. Although we have a very packed schedule with
class starting early most mornings, and programming multiple nights a week, I knew
that the options to find a minyan in Jerusalem every day would be easy. What I did not
know was whether I would be going to these minyanim alone or when we were not in
Jerusalem how I would ensure I was able to say kaddish.
Starting from the very first day of our opening conference in Zichron Yaakov, my
co-fellows have been extremely supportive and I have not had to go far to find a
minyan. My cohort has come together and we have had a Nachshon minyan nearly
each night. In addition to making a minyan every day, my co-fellows are supportive and
understanding of anything and everything that I need and do not need. While this is not
the exact experience I was planning for or would ever ask for, I am very grateful for this special experience, especially at this time in my life, and the people it has brought to
me. Without my entire cohort, Rabbi Cohen, and Rabbi Zeff this experience would not
be the same and their help and support throughout this entire process is something I will
be forever grateful for.
On February 11th, 2020, Cohort 6 of the Nachshon Project had the honor and privilege of hearing from Avram Infeld following our Beit Midrash classes. His extensive knowledge on establishing and progressing Jewry within North America was only matched with his comedic humor. Throughout his lecture we talked about key principles that he felt were slowly tearing the Jewish community apart and his solution to the problem. As he spoke, he used the metaphor of a five-legged table as being much stronger than a three or four-legged table. Avram Infeld related this idea to the Jewish people and how by using five main points, the Jewish generations could be once more unified regardless of religious denomination or religiousness. Five main points he heavily stressed was the idea of a shared Jewish memory, family, the importance of Mt.Sinai, the land and state of Israel, and the Hebrew language. Through these ideas, if we could only manage to agree on at least three of the five, we would always have at least one thing in common. While managing to relate to the Parsha of the week in the book of Exodus, Avram Infeld also spoke about how the Jewish people have never been successful with one leader. Whether it be King David, Moshe, Aaron, or Joshua. Jewish leadership has always been most successful with a team with a clear goal and vision. Like Moses, we too need a team when trying to plan events or develop a project. Only through collaboration and cooperation between different people geared toward a specific role can the best results be expected. Crucial but necessary therefore is the need of a team that can help balance the workload and give feedback. Overall, Avram Infeld’s wise words truly made a mark on me as I’m sure it did with the rest of my cohort. Truly an inspirational night of learning and growing!
When I woke up Monday February 3rd, I didn’t expect to spend my day feeling hopeless. I didn’t expect to write more in my notebook for one speaker than all of the previous speakers combined. I didn’t expect to be in shock. Around 10AM, we arrived at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv to hear from Dr. David Passig, a professor of Future Studies there. Dr. Passig’s job is to use statistics, history trends, and probabilities, to calculate what he believes the potential future to be. Though his predictions covered events spanning the globe, he spoke to us mostly on the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Before I outline his predictions, it is important for me to note that I do not know the methodologies he uses to arrive at these conclusions and to me, a complete and total amateur at predicting the future who would argue that given the irrationality of human behavior it is inherently unpredictable and therefore any attempt to do so is at best gambling, these are nothing more than guesses. He argued that the Jewish future in America is minimal while Israel’s Jewish population will double by 2050 and triple by 2100 with the American Jewish population falling from 6 million to 1 million in that time frame. For someone who wants to work in the American Jewish world, which is highly different from the Israeli one, this can be troubling news. What community will exist here for us to work in in 30 years, or will we be left jobless with non-transferable skills just as our kids are going to college? But then I thought some more about the reality he predicted. We, as future Jewish leaders, are going to have an effect on that reality. We, as Nachshon fellows, are going to be equipped to create, strengthen, and preserve Jewish communities in the US, which are going to be the skills needed in America for the coming century.
As part of our first Shabbaton with The Nachshon Project, we had the privilege to learn from Rav Shmuel Klistner, a modern Orthodox thinker and teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Over the course of the Shabbaton about Jewish identity, we heard from speakers from multiple denominations including Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidic. We were able to hear how a member of each denomination viewed their Jewish identity, the role of Jewish law in their lives, and how they related to their denominations. Rav Klistner represented a more progressive side of Modern Orthodoxy and gave a fascinating Shiur on how his community relates to halakha (Jewish Law) and how halakha can be adapted when necessary. Rav Klistner talked about the relationship between Jewish tradition and the realities of the modern age. He taught that sometimes when these two aspects of Jewish law become out of touch, there becomes a need to look for ways to innovate Jewish law. This innovation is possible as long as it is established within the parameters of the system of Jewish law. Rav Klistner’s model of halakhic innovation allows for a system that can evolve when necessary. An example of this that Rav Klistner provided was the case of a missing Israeli submarine and the status of the wives of the missing Jewish sailors. In this case, because of the modern reality of new technology, a halakhic precedent was reinterpreted to prevent a situation where the widows could not remarry if they wanted. This understanding of Jewish law is crucial to Rav Klistner’s Jewish identity and forms the basis of how he interacts with Jewish law. As future leaders in different communities, it is important for us to understand the different philosophies of the different denominations. Many of us will be working with many types of Jews and as leaders it is important to fully understand our constituents and understand how their relate to their Judaism. We cannot lead our communities without first understanding that there exists many different ways to understand Judaism and relate to Jewish tradition. This understanding is critical to any attempt to create spaces for Jews of all backgrounds in our communities and spaces where these different beliefs and understandings can interact.
There’s no bonding quite like taking a Jeep through mud with 33 people who you just met. During the opening conference, there was a lot of learning and intense conversation, so having a lighthearted activity was very necessary to let loose a little. It was the first time we got to really see each other’s true personalities.
I was fortunate enough to be in a Jeep with two other cohort members and Rabbi Cohen. I was nervous going in because I was going to be in a little Jeep for over an hour with brand new people. However, that worry quickly dissolved as being drenched in mud from head to toe quickly breaks down your social walls. We divided up based on who wanted to drive. Originally, I said I would be fine not driving, but I ultimately was able to drive. While I drove, we got to talking about Judaism and we asked Rabbi Cohen a lot of random questions about keeping kosher. We also talked about our own individual Jewish journeys. We could not stop laughing the whole time and we got to know each other a lot better. The drive that we went on was absolutely stunning. We drove through orange fields, went on a little hike while Turkish coffee was being prepared for us, and saw a beautiful view of Netanya. It set a good tone for the beginning of The Nachshon Project and I feel Jeeping was truly when the program really started.
By the time the sun began setting on our first Friday together as a cohort, I could already feel our group was getting close. Shabbat gave us a time to reflect on the few days we had spent together so far and the months we still have to come.
For Kabbalat Shabbat, a group of us decided to host our own camp-style service. In a room of the hotel, we sat in a circle and sang, laughed, reflected, and talked. Guitar filled the space with so much joy as we bonded over shared memories and songs from our homes. One of us led a meditation, allowing us all to reflect on the impact the last few days had on us as well as what we hope to gain from the rest of the opening conference and the semester. As soon as we ran out of songs we all knew, we took turns teaching each other our favorite Kabbalat Shabbat melodies.
As the sun continued to sink in the sky, we transitioned from celebrating Shabbat as a group to celebrating with the community in Zichron Ya’akov. We walked down the street to a Reform shul to join them for Ma’ariv. As we walked in, we were invited into a circle very similar to the one we had just made. The melodies we sang together were almost exactly the same as the ones I am used to, which made me immediately feel so much more at home here in Israel. This was the first synagogue that I have ever been to in Israel and I was filled with an unparalleled sense of joy. It was a warm welcome that made me realize that no matter where in the world I am, I will always be able to find a home within the Jewish community.
While a majority of the few Juniors studying abroad spent yesterday worrying about their programs being cancelled, I had an incredible time. I understand how insensitive that sentence could be to those whose trips and semesters have been cancelled recently, but it is genuinely a testament to how special of an experience I and the thirty three other Nachshon Fellows are currently having while still abroad.
The Nachshon Project is not your typical abroad experience. Sundays are spent in programming from 9-5 (sometimes later) exploring our Jewish identities and future career paths, rather than other friends who may be hungover on a train from one European country to the next. Our program requires us to take an additional class rather than supplying us with easy and quick courses. When the Nachshon Project fellows have conversations with other Rothberg University students about their Nachshon programming, they are often met with people who act as if it is a chore. My friends and I have been shocked to have to explain to people on other programs abroad how much we actually enjoy the programming. What the extra programming and structures means, is that rather than being alone in a foreign country while studying abroad, Nachshon provides us with the support and resources we need to flourish and explore.
The two rabbis who run Nacshon have fostered the most professional, yet personal relationships with all thirty four of us. They take care of us personally, taking us to Ikea before we moved into our dorms and bringing us into their homes and families. It has only been a month and we all feel such a strong sense of community within the entire Nachshon program, mostly because of our programing the Rabbis run.
I have known how special The Nachshon Project is since I heard about it two summers ago at camp, but the Coronavirus has emphasized the value of Nachshon to me and many of my peers. This experience is so special because in a time where almost every other study abroad student felt alone and far from home, I felt myself feeling the most at home I have ever felt.
Yesterday the number of Coronavirus cases in our current home, Israel, as well as back in North America, continued to rise exponentially. News continued to come in about more students abroad being sent home, more flights to and from the United States being canceled, and more universities in the U.S. being shut down for the rest of the year. Yesterday one of the fellows hosted a seudah for Purim at her apartment. As we all showed up, like the rest of the World, all we could talk and worry about was Corona. Naturally, we did what has become like a habit to us in the past month- texted the rabbis. Within less than an hour one of the rabbis showed up to our Purim lunch with his four children dressed up to celebrate and reassure us.
I knew the Jewish value of community was always at the core of my Jewish identity, but after participating in Nachshon this has illuminated this aspect of my identity. I had an incredible, stress free Shushan Purim at a time where I likely should have felt alone and I could not feel more thankful for The Nachshon Project amidst this chaos.
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