On Thursday Feb. 16, UCLA’s Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) took part in Ohr Sameach’s annual New York Shabbaton. Ohr Sameach is a Jewish organization that gives Jews with the desire to learn more about their religious background opportunities to do just that, both through Shabbatons and its prominent yeshiva in Jerusalem. The trip itself, as described by Rabbi Binyomin Schonblum, the Shabbaton’s chief organizer, was an opportunity to “share the beauty of our rich heritage with Jewish college students from all backgrounds, educating them through Torah study, Jewish experiences and exposure to Torah-centric rabbis, business leaders and Jews who care.”
Attendees from Los Angeles were primarily students or recent graduates of UCLA with former involvement in JAM. Subsidized by various Jewish philanthropists, the the four-day trip cost only $39 for students, flight included. For an additional ski trip that extended the trip to five days, the trip cost only $89. Rabbi Naftali Hanfling, the rabbi of JAM at UCLA, has sent students on the trip in previous years but only decided to attend it for himself this year.
UCLA students departed from LAX to New Jersey’s Newark airport at 7 a.m., landing at 4 p.m. eastern time. The trip’s itinerary included a plethora of events and activities. On the first day, I spent time in the cold, Brooklyn snow, lost at a game of ping-pong and watched Rabbi Hanfling pack and unpack our airport shuttle.
But, on a serious note, the trip was an emphatically fantastic experience. The Shabbaton’s nearly 100 proud Jewish students came from every large city in the U.S. We ate amazing dinners, learned Torah segments and anecdotes that we had never dreamed of, met and networked with leaders of several different industries (from the CEO of Meridian Capital to the editor-in-chief of Yated Ne’eman, the Haredi newsmagazine), and saw how New York Jews lived and managed to uphold the Shabbat while also contributing to a secular society.
For four nights, we slept in Orthodox Jewish households in Brooklyn. Our group was split into about 50 pairs of students from different regions. My roommate, a first-year law student at Chapman University, and I stayed with two accountants and their five young children. On our first night, Zvi (the husband), drove us from the synagogue where we were studying to the Pomegranate, a famous kosher supermarket. To my pleasant surprise, although my roommate and I looked visibly different than the residents of the almost exclusively Orthodox population in this part of Brooklyn, we were treated as though there were no difference in our lifestyles. We all laughed at funny jokes, appreciated the same foods and shared a fondness for similar causes.
The Ohr Sameach trip did not hold back. The rabbis we met encouraged us to ask questions about all lessons taught and sights seen. We had the chance to experience life through the eyes of New York Jews without sacrificing the New York experience. We experienced hypnosis shows, walks through Wall Street, a tour of the Freedom Tower, four-hour nights of sleep, museums, demonstrations on how to use gladiatorial shields, the list goes on.
This was a trip that I am sure attendees will never forget. In witnessing and experiencing these different narratives, as a less observant Jew, my perspective on what loving God could mean truly shifted. As a new transfer student, the trip also served as an excellent way for me connect with like-minded Bruins. I am enthusiastically looking forward to next year’s Ohr Sameach Shabbaton, and hope to see many more faces there.