This past week, ten businessmen from the New York area put aside their work and personal lives to come and give Chizuk to the staff and students at JEM (Jewish Experience of Madison) based at University of Wisconsin. By all accounts, it was a truly memorable trip packed with inspiration, not only for the Mikarivim on campus but for the gentleman who made the trip as well.
The University of Wisconsin has a huge student body numbering approximately 45,000 students. What is less known, it is also home to approximately 4000 Jewish college students with extremely limited knowledge to Yiddishkeit. Jewish Experience of Madison (JEM), was founded in 2005 by Yerachmiel Anton and Avi Zaitschek to directly address the opportunity to reach these Jewish students. By all accounts, they are literally saving Jewish Neshomos.
After landing in Milwaukee, the group visited the home of the Milwaukee Rebbe, Rav Michel Twerski Shlita which in itself was worth the trip. The world renowned Rebbe spoke about the secular shift in the lives of the average Jewish family today as opposed to years ago when there was more of an interest in exploring their Jewish identity. He explained how on college campuses there is still a listening audience and the potential to impact students is great. The group was mesmerized by the timely words of chizuk and direction from the Rebbe and took them to heart as they began the hour long drive to Madison, Wisconsin to continue the frenetic 24 hour visit.
During a walking tour of the campus, the visitors observed random students easily identify Rabbi Chesky Tarlow, JEM’s program director, with a wave and a hug for “Rabbi T.” The visitors were then brought to the new building JEM recently purchased in the heart of the campus (on fraternity row.) They toured the building and were shown the ambitious staff and student housing renovations project soon to get under way. Finally settling in, the visitors than had a chance to meet with many of the students that JEM is reaching.
An interactive conversation began between the group and the students, inquiring from the students what magic pull does JEM offer that attracts them to learn more about their Jewish identity and heritage. The students unanimously conveyed their feelings of belonging and personal growth as a result of their involvement with JEM. The guests were than able to observe the highly effective Maimonides leadership program which is a semester long lecture series attended by the University students. Over the years hundreds of students have pointed to this program as their first step towards a more meaningful Jewish affiliation. Two separate lectures were presented by well known personalities, Mr. Ali Scharf and Mr. Chaskel Bennett. Other participants making the trip included Jake Blatter, Avi Englard, Nesanel Gold, Chaim Ishakis, Adam Kay, Yanky Miller, Shlomo Reich, and Shea Rubinstein. The night was capped off by a BBQ and stirring Kumzits by famous Jewish entertainer Eitan Katz assisted by Shlomo Reich. At this event the visitors got to meet over 50 of JEM’s students. As the music got more Lebedik, dancing broke out amongst the men and brought to life the amazing feeling of Kol Yisroel Areivim Zeh Lozeh.
JEM Director of development Rabbi Avi Zaitschek remarked,” what started out as a dream transformed the JEM staff and students. We look forward to hosting many more trips and sharing the beauty of JEM with others.” Visiting guests like Ali Scharf, Chaskel Bennett and Adam Kay were so inspired by what they saw that they have begun discussing a larger shabbaton in the coming months for them and others to experience.
Annually, JEM interacts with 650 students on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus. This year, 2014, JEM has an unprecedented number of 140 students learning Torah weekly. v