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Students Trade Winter Break for Jewish Experience

The Snorkel and Study program from Bais Chana Women’s International brings students and young professionals to Key Largo, Fla., for a text-intensive winter break Jewish experience.

For the past four years, graduate student Kelly Scovone has vacationed in Key Largo, Fla., during her mid-winter break. She settles in an oceanfront condo with full amenities, a 15-minute drive to a deep water marina that features snorkeling, scuba diving, and water skiing. But although there are boundless opportunities for adventure right at her fingertips, she barely ventures into the great outdoors at all.

As a participant at Snorkel and Study, a women’s learning retreat geared to university students and young professionals who want to delve into exploring their Jewish identities, Scovone becomes so absorbed by her Torah classes and newfound friends that time flies by.

“You are put in a position where you are meeting young women from all over the world,” says Scovone, who first heard about the program through Sashi Friedman, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center serving Florida International University. “There are women from all over America, and a handful from France and South America. There are women from all kinds of Jewish backgrounds and affiliations. Some are just starting their journey and have never lit Sabbath candles. Others are veterans.”

Snorkel and Study is one of the most popular offerings of Bais Chana Women’s International, which was founded by Rabbi Moshe and Mindy Feller, and Rabbi Manis Friedman, in 1971. Until 2006, most of the organizations retreats took place in Minnesota.

“We travel around now,” explains Friedman, noting that resort locations help attract more students. “We are not forcing everyone to come to Minnesota in the winter.”

Alex Lasky, a graduate of Colorado State University, joined Snorkel and Study at the suggestion of her alma mater’s Chabad House’s director, Devorah Leah Gorelik.

“I actually didn’t know what to expect,” she admits. “I thought they would lecture and maybe answer questions.”

Lasky was pleasantly surprised by the open atmosphere of the classes.

“They were very discussion-based,” she says. “It was cool to construct the topic based on what [students] were thinking. They encouraged us to ask questions. You don’t really have that in college classes.”

Teachers were so bent on answering every question that they often spoke straight through lunch or supper as girls lined up in order to speak with them, adds Lasky.

In addition to learning basic and more advanced Jewish concepts, women at Snorkel and Study create friendships at an accelerated rate.

“They find themselves bonding with people that they might not ordinarily connect with in a typical campus situation,” says Hinda Leah Sharfstein, executive director of Bais Chana. “In one week, they make connections that will last a life time.”

“I have kept in contact with the friends I’ve made there, and its four years later,” remarks Dana Migdel, a former University of Albany student who in 2009, received a Snorkel and Study scholarship through the help of Shabbos House co-director Raizy Rubin.

Manis Friedman, a sought-after scholar who serves as Snorkel and Study’s lead lecturer, says that by the time the program has ended, attendees “understand themselves, their family and their own Judaism better. They know they belong. They see their purpose in life.”

Sharfstein agrees.

“The transformation is sort of a stripping away of a lot of the superficiality,” she explains, “and really hitting on all of the important things in life.”

“I have a quote up on my wall that says, ‘I’m a Jew and I’m proud, and I’ll sing it out loud,’ ” says Migdel. “I got it at Snorkel and Study.”

While some girls strive to light Sabbath candles every Friday, others have found Torah study partners so they can continue learning on a regular basis.

“We are all at different stages in our journeys,” says Liz Halpern of the University of Colorado. “But we all have one thing in common: We have embarked on the voyage.”

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