Madison, Wisconsin, is not the first place you’d expect to find 40 frum people spending an uplifting Shabbos together. But that is exactly what happened two weeks ago during an unseasonably warm weekend in November.
What brought 40 East Coasters to the capital of Wisconsin for three days? Why would they leave their cozy homes in Brooklyn and the Five Towns to brave the November cold of the Midwest? It was a special event to mark the chanukas ha’bayis of the JEM building in Madison.
JEM, or Jewish Experience of Madison, is a college kiruv organization that has been in the city for the past nine years. During those years, hundreds of students have joined JEM’s learning programs, cramming into living rooms, dining rooms, and anywhere they could find room to enjoy the inspiration they found at JEM.
Aside from being the capital of Wisconsin, Madison is also home of the famed University of Wisconsin, known not just for its high-level academics, but also for its successful football team (the pride and joy of every student) and the seemingly nonstop partying that takes place on campus.
In this setting, University of Wisconsin would seem to be the least likely place to find a thriving kiruv organization. However, due to the same confluence of factors, thousands of students flock to the university from the East and West coasts. Among those thousands, many are Jewish—up to 4,000 during any given semester.
It was this massive population of smart, educated, and highly impressionable young Jews that spurred Rabbi Yerachmiel Anton and Rabbi Avi Zaitschek to establish JEM. Their goal was to create a warm and welcoming center for young men and women to explore Yiddishkeit at their own pace, without pressure or guilt, and expose them to the Torah-true experience of Shabbos and yom tov.
Despite its humble beginnings, JEM’s campus staff always attracted large crowds that were drawn to the sincerity and honesty of Torah Jews. They came to talk, learn, eat, or just enjoy the caring company. For many students, it was their first time alone in the big world. JEM became their anchor, a place where they felt like family.
A few years ago, it became clear that the size of JEM’s facility severely limited the scope and reach that these kiruv pioneers were hoping to achieve. So, they began searching for a large building capable of holding all of the organization’s activities under one roof.
This was not a simple task. First, they would need substantial support from outside donors, since there is no local community to turn to for support. Second, they would need to find a building that was not just large enough for their growing programs, but also in the right location to attract students on campus.
With much siyatta d’Shmaya, they found an old fraternity house that was on the market. It was not just spacious but also perfectly located in the center of campus life. They purchased the property two years ago.
Though the project is far from complete, the building has already become a hub of activity. Approximately 80 students learn one-on-one during the week, and many more stop by for a quick chat or a heart-to-heart with a caring staff member.
A typical Shabbos meal attracts about 30 students, some who are taking their first uncertain steps in Judaism and others who have been part of the JEM family for a few years and are already keeping Shabbos and kashrus for the first time in their lives. The common bond that unites them all is a serious drive to learn more about their roots and connect to real Torah learning.
For the 40 people from New York and New Jersey who spent Shabbos Parashas Toldos in Madison, it was an experience they will not forget. Many of them came to Madison not knowing what to expect, but left energized and charged by the amazing ruach that JEM exudes. They enthusiastically thanked Rabbi Zaitschek for his tenacity in organizing the event.
They were introduced to sincere young Jews, all of whom are growing in their Yiddishkeit at their own pace. For each one, JEM is a lifeline, guiding, teaching, and encouraging every step of the way.
The Shabbos festivities included beautifully inspiring davening by the famous Eitan Katz, delicious catered seudos, and almost nonstop zemiros and singing. It was an uplifting weekend for both the students and the visitors.
It was an amazing sight to behold on Friday night as the dining room was filled to capacity with students, families, and staff, all enjoying the kedushah of seudas Shabbos. One couldn’t help but marvel at the instant camaraderie between the students and visiting families.
Young students sat side by side with the visiting men and women, and discovered they had much in common and even more to discuss. At the same time, the visitors were astounded to witness the thirst these young students have for a more meaningful way of life.
The weekend culminated with a chanukas ha’bayis celebration on Sunday morning with a packed house of friends and supporters who came to share in the simcha. The program included speeches from students, JEM staff, and visiting guests, all echoing the same theme of growth and inspiration that JEM stands for.
Special guest speakers included Rav Bentzion Twerski of Milwaukee, who spoke of the kiddush Hashem taking place at JEM and noted askan, R’ Chaskel Bennett of Flatbush, who brought his family to experience Shabbos in Madison. His message to the gathering was simple yet powerful: JEM is on the front lines in ensuring the future of the Jewish people. We all have the opportunity to partner with JEM in making sure the students, future leaders, get the opportunity to experience the beauty of Torah Judaism.
Bruce Leon, a special guest speaker from Chicago, enraptured the audience with his humor and sharp insight. Mr. Leon had attended University of Wisconsin for college before becoming a ba’al teshuvah and setting up a successful business in Chicago.
Sporting his University of Wisconsin baseball cap, he pointed out the transformation that had taken place on campus and challenged the current students to stand up for Yiddishkeit: “Be a player, not a spectator. When I attended University of Wisconsin, there was no organization like JEM to help me make the right decisions that you all have the opportunity to make today.”
Indeed, JEM is truly the miracle of Madison. v
Three Things I Learned In Madison
By Chana Kastelbaum
What was I thinking? Why did I agree to spend Shabbos in Madison, Wisconsin?
As if to slap me in the face and wake me out of my stupor, we were greeted by 12-degree air when we landed in Milwaukee on Thursday night. And the mercury was still falling. We had to drive another 90 minutes before we reached our destination. “233 Langdon Street!” announced the GPS. We had arrived at JEM.
It was going to be a Shabbos I would never forget, but not for the reasons that I thought. The weather actually turned much warmer than expected, and we were in for an experience that was inspirational, eye-opening, and truly amazing.
As I sat on the packed flight returning home to “warm” New York, I mused about the 72 hours I had just spent witnessing the remarkable college kiruv operation of the Jewish Experience of Madison.
We had seen so much and heard so many inspiring stories that it was difficult to pinpoint just one underlying theme, but there were three lessons that I came away with that I hope will change my life.
1. Be Real
“Be Real.” It’s a phrase we heard over and over during our three days in Madison.
The students are real. The rabbis are real. The learning is real. Everything about JEM is real.
These unaffiliated students knew exactly what it means to be fake. They were surrounded by the false allure of college football, drunken parties, and the rat race of college life. Instead they chose to spend their time at the one haven of frumkeit—of realness—on campus.
It got me thinking about my own life. Am I real? Is my Yiddishkeit real?
It seemed remarkable that these young 20-somethings had the fortitude to overcome peer pressure and make the right decision to come to JEM. I am older and “frummer,” yet I am not so sure how I handle similar situations in my own life.
Do I choose the realness of Torah versus the superficial trappings that have become so much a part of our lives?
Do I exude the excitement for my Torah life that would attract an unaffiliated Jew to Yiddishkeit?
Since I came home, I have resolved to ask myself these questions every day.
2. Be Firm
During the early days at JEM, Rabbi Daniel Hyman, a JEM mentor, sent an e-mail to his fellow staff members. It went something like this:
Let’s not fool ourselves. We are not cool. We are not “with-it.” These students are immersed in a culture that worships coolness and with-it-ness and we cannot compete in that game.
Instead, let us simply be ourselves. We should never stoop to try to imitate the world that they live in.
This is the credo that they live by. They are frum in a very un-frum environment and they are not embarrassed about it. They teach morals and sensitivity in a setting that is sometimes the antithesis of these middos, yet they persevere.
Rabbi Chezky Tarlow, another mentor, cheerfully walks around campus with his tzitzis dangling out. Rabbi Hyman’s thick peyos have surely caused some curious stares. Yet the students are drawn to their sincerity like a magnet.
Oh, how I wish I could say that I never did things to be cool and with-it. It took just a few days in Wisconsin to see through the illusion and refocus on what’s really important.
3. Make Kiddush
One of the quirky parts of life at JEM is the Shabbos schedule. Due to the sleepy nature of young college students, they tend to show up late for the Shabbos seudos. Taking it in stride, Rabbi Tarlow made Kiddush several times throughout the morning, ensuring that every student would fulfill this important mitzvah of Shabbos.
By the time shalosh seudos came around, he must have repeated Kiddush about 10 times. It became a sort of ritual . . . it’s time to make Kiddush again!
It struck me that “Kiddush” is something that comes natural for him, not just on Shabbos. He “makes Kiddush” on Monday night when he’s having a heartfelt talk with a young freshman who is taking his first steps in Yiddishkeit. He makes Kiddush on Wednesday, too, when his mere presence attracts a group of admirers as he walks the campus streets. And he makes Kiddush the entire Shabbos—not just during the seudos.
Yes, he and his fellow staff members are mekadeish Shem Shamayim in virtually everything they do. They take responsibility for their fellow Jews and are shining examples of the beauty of Torah life.
One of the eye-opening things that we learned over Shabbos was that a large percentage of the Jewish students at University of Wisconsin hail from New York. Amazingly, many of them are our neighbors, yet most of us would never know it.
Yes! They live in our neighborhoods. They see the way we live. They learn what it means to be a frum Jew from the way we walk and talk.
It’s time for all of us to start making Kiddush . . . a lot. v
Chana Kastelbaum was among the 40 people who trekked out to Wisconsin to celebrate the chanukas ha’bayis of the new JEM building.