I didn’t grow up identifying as Jewish, but that changed as I began to learn what it really meant to be a Jew. After studying on my own, I realized that my spiritual quest wasn’t going to end anytime soon. I’d been learning for about eight months, but with work and university courses to deal with at the same time, I was not able to give Judaism my full attention. Ivy League, however, looked like I could get just that: an in-depth chance to study Judaism without the worries and distractions of college life. The stipend was what could make it all possible, so when I found out about it, I rushed to apply. I came to the Catskills with an open mind, and left with a dozen sisters and broader definition of what it means to be Jewish. We learned a staggering amount of material in a comparatively minute amount of time; our days, nights and weekends were jam packed. But we didn’t just learn. We laughed, cried, sang, shared, and bonded so fully, so fast. From the day trips to the Shabbos tables, everything affected me.
The environment was beautiful, the food was delicious, and the extra-curricular activities were enjoyable and meaningful. No matter what someone’s inclinations, they had the chance to express themselves. During our breaks, girls went shopping, swimming, hiking, did yoga or just got to know each other better. We made Shabbos decorations and mezuzzah covers, learned and practiced micro-calligraphy (artwork), and on our own, started a weekly newsletter. We even made kosher sushi! I felt at home with those young ladies, and happily surprised to discover that their goals of spiritual growth were on par with my own. In the months that preceded Ivy League, I often felt judged negatively for thinking that there could be a deeper purpose to life. I encountered tensions among friends and family as I didn’t always tactfully or successfully convey my changing value system. I could recognize a lot of beauty and wisdom in Judaism, but I didn’t know how to incorporate that into my life without leaving my loved ones in the dust.
But Ivy League helped me with all of that. I could be honest about my beliefs and questions, and the two madrichot (or “counselors”), girls that grew up in observant homes, always gave supportive and thoughtful answers and advice. I learned as much from my peers as from the lecturers, and gained insight and strength by sharing my own lessons and experiences. Another thing that impressed me was that I was never put down for disagreeing with a Rabbi’s, teacher’s, or staff member’s idea. Before coming to Ivy League, I was worried that I might be pressured to fit inside a tiny little box of Orthodoxy. But once I got there I realized what a baseless fear that was. Ivy League certainly offered a wealth of learning, but I was never forced to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with, and I was never told I was wrong or bad. Girls there called themselves Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Chabad or just Jewish, and if they weren’t ready to take on a certain observance, no one looked down on them.
It was obvious that all of the teachers and staff members cared about us deeply. Their main goals were to provide us with an opportunity to grow and share in the beauty of true Torah Judaism, free of worry and restrictions. I believe they achieved that and more. Ivy League helped me focus and strengthen my awareness of concepts that were only peripheral to me at the beginning of that summer. Looking back I realize how blessed I was; instead of paying thousands to travel to Israel, I got paid thousands to study in upstate NY! At Ivy League, I was able to develop the intellectual tools to define my spiritual identity. I was worried about committing to too much too soon, but Ivy League allowed me to expand my horizons without falling off the cliff! For all of these reasons and more, Ivy League was the perfect next step in my spiritual education. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to have a meaningful, unforgettable Jewish experience.