Sometimes in life, you have to dive in head first. That’s especially relevant when swimming in the sea of Jewish knowledge.
The “Snorkel & Study” winter retreat program offers college women the chance to submerge themselves in Torah learning and growth—and in the deep waters of Key Largo, Fla. The program, founded in 2006 and run by the Chabad-Lubavitch educational organization Bais Chana Women International, brings about 100 participants together to explore the reefs below and beliefs above. Any graduate or undergraduate student can join; the only prerequisite is that they be interested in learning more about Judaism.
Katie Tapper, 23, a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans, left on the trip not knowing other participants (the program runs from Jan. 2 to Jan. 9). She met Rabbi Yochanan and Sara Rivkin, co-directors of the Rohr ChabadJewish Student Center at Tulane University, as a freshman, and says she has been deeply impacted by her relationship with them. Over the years, she has delved into Jewish study, song and prayer. The winter-break adventure was a natural outgrowth of her exploration.
“I love the idea of being among so many women who are searching together,” says Tapper. “I’m hoping to make friends with those who have similar perspectives as me, who are passionate about discovering themselves and their relationship with G‑d.”
“It’s not about the snorkeling; I’ve done that before,” she notes. “I can’t wait for the full experience of keeping Shabbat, and learning Torah and Jewish philosophy in a practical way that can impact my life.”
The retreat includes all sorts of adventures a Florida resort would offer. In addition to snorkeling, students can go wave-running, parasailing, canoeing and even swim with dolphins.
Program’s Bat Mitzvah Year
Still, the emphasis is on motivating each woman to embrace her Jewish identity with pride.
The study part of the program includes classes and conversations that prompt participants to voice their thoughts and queries. “No question is too controversial,” states Hinda Leah Sharfstein, the director of Bais Chana. “What does Judaism say about gender? About Jewish medical ethics? What do Jews believe about souls and the afterlife, and about how to find your soulmate? Why does anti-Semitism exist? What’s the key to happiness? All of that and more are up for discussion.
“At this age, these women are just about to make the biggest decisions of their lives: what their life’s work will be, who they’ll marry, how they’ll raise their kids,” continues Sharfstein. “They’re learning about relationships, about living a more purposeful, G‑d-centered Jewish life—and that has a direct impact on those big decisions. It’s such an important age to be mentored by strong women who can guide them now and set an example for the years to come.”
The teaching staff includes longtime educator and one of the founders of Bais Chana, Rabbi Manis Friedman of Lubavitch of Minnesota; Miriam Lipskier, co-director of Chabad at Emory University in Atlanta; Rivkah Slonim, education director at the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life at Binghamton University in New York; and Shifra Sharfstein, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Houseat Georgia Tech and Georgia State. The program is made possible due to the support of Barbara Hines of Houston.
Slonim, who has served as a campus emissary for more than 30 years has taught for “Snorkel & Study” since it began 12 years ago. She points out the bat mitzvah year milestone and what she has gotten out of it all herself.
“Year after year, I am inspired anew by the singular energy and synergy generated by this program,” she says. “While I attend in the role of instructor, I always feel that I gain more than the participants. Its incredible impact can easily be tracked.”
Lipskier has also been an instructor from the get-go and a campus emissary since the year 2000. She focuses on “universal subjects, no matter what the background or knowledge level of participants—subjects relatable to all.”
She thinks that “it’s incredible that of all the places to be and things to do to usher in 2018, so many Jewish college women chose to invest their time here,” she says. It speaks to both the program itself, and what young women seek today in terms of activities and soul-searching.
‘We Became a Sisterhood’
Chaya Bracha Rubin participated in the program during her junior year of college. She says back then, she “didn’t even know the aleph-bet”—the Hebrew alphabet.
She adds that she had no formal Jewish education and was hardly aware of her Jewish identity. After meeting Sarah Meretsky, co-director of Chabad of Penn State in State College, Pa., she began learning the basics of Judaism. A poster advertising a meaningful winter vacation enticed her to join “Snorkel & Study.” Sun and spirituality in one sweet package . . . she says “it sounded incredible.” That January, she packed her bags and flew to Florida.
“There are no words for the positive energy I felt when I got there,” says Chaya Bracha, who at the time used her given English name, Bonnie. “The diversity was unbelievable. Everyone came from different backgrounds—from all across the world and from a wide range of religious levels. But in one short week, we became a sisterhood.”
What she really appreciated was that there was nopressure or stress involved when it came to the studies. The learning happened casually, through an impromptu farbrengen (informal get-together), one-on-one partnered (chavruta) study or a late-night talk. “You didn’t haveto be at classes, but you wanted to be there. The pool was inviting,” but so was the education, she says. “The teachers were answering all my questions, plus so many new questions I never knew I had.”
One morning while preparing for class, she asked her roommate about dating. A quick question spilled into a long discussion about the matchmaking system and why religious Jews observe it. It was one more instance of Rubin wanting to learn more about her heritage and traditions.
“The program that made me realize it wasn’t yet time to cap my Jewish growth,” says Rubin, now married and the mother of three. “After the retreat, it became clear to me that my Jewish journey was only beginning. The more you know, the more you want to know—and there was so much about G‑d and Judaism that I still wanted to know.”