On a beautiful Saturday morning, most Southern Californians like to take advantage of the first day of the weekend by heading out for a rewarding and calming hike, and UCLA sophomore Noah Lizerbram feels no differently. For Lizerbram, however, experiencing nature is not just a recreational activity, but also a spiritual one. Having started Hillel’s new Chai On Life program, Lizerbram intends to provide Jewish students with alternative ways to celebrate Shabbat on Saturday mornings.
Lizerbram, a Hillel engagement intern, created Chai On Life after learning that there are many students, like himself, who do not necessarily have an interest in attending Shabbat services on Saturday mornings. As the former vice president of Olim, the social youth group at his local synagogue in San Diego, Lizerbram is no stranger to uniting young Jews and encouraging them to find their own ways of connecting to Judaism. Lizerbram was inspired by his family’s tradition of hiking a mountain every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to start the New Year. Harnessing that passion and his connection to nature, Lizerbram decided to engage students in outdoor activities that are fun, social, and would ultimately create a more unique forum for Jewish students to spiritually connect to their faith.
“Ideally, the [Chai On Life] events will inspire these students to participate in other Hillel programs and Friday night Shabbat,” said Lizerbram, who said he has seen nothing but enthusiasm about the program in the Jewish community.
This past Saturday, Chai On Life took six participants hiking in the beautiful Solstice Canyon in Malibu. Once they reached the peak of their hike, the students engaged in a compelling discussion about the week’s Torah portion, Terumah, and recited a few Shabbat prayers.
The discussion continued with the hikers reflecting on “where [they] feel most Jewish and what components of Judaism [they] feel are necessary to keep alive,” said Brooklyn Michalowicz, an active participant of the Chai On Life program and member of the Hillel Student Board. Michalowicz added that “[they] found that the concept of community was the prevalent answer within the group.” Traditional ideals of Judaism were prevalent in their program and discussions, and a sense of unity drew the group together as they completed the hike together.
Michalowicz, who went to traditional Shabbat services prior to attending UCLA, finds that although she has not found a synagogue within UCLA with Shabbat services that she relates to, “being outside and holding meaningful conversations with [her] fellow Jewish Bruins is the second best alternative.”
Another Chai On Life program participant, Brian Hertz, who is also on the Hillel Student Board, commented that “Chai On Life gave [him] the chance to think critically about [his] connection to Judaism.” Hertz also added that the program allowed him to experience a “higher state of being” on Shabbat, as he was able to learn about Judaism from the perspectives of people whom he had met for the first time. Just as Lizerbram intended, Chai On Life has broadened the horizons of Hillel at UCLA’s Shabbat programming, giving more opportunities for Jewish students at UCLA to connect with their faith while meeting new people.
Danna Creager, another student who attended the hike, agreed that she loved that she could “simultaneously feel the presence of nature and the connection to the Jewish community.” She, like Hertz, also enjoyed meeting fresh faces and found that the experience allowed students “to feel a strong connection to Judaism and to each other.” Creager echoed Lizerbram’s sentiment that traditional services are not always relatable for students at UCLA, which is why the alternative Shabbat experience, which creates a forum for students to practice Shabbat in a different and less traditional manner, is so valuable.
By involving Jewish students in fun activities that they will be more inclined to attend, Chai On Life maintains a forum for Jews to partake in on Sabbath morning. Instead of meeting in a synagogue, Jews can meet in nature, as they did this past Saturday. Chai On Life’s alternative Shabbat programming involves students in the Jewish community without limiting them to conventional religious services that do not always appeal to them. By taking students hiking, Chai On Life can create a medium for Jewish students to interact with peers and make new friends so that they feel more inclined to attend other programs at Hillel, slowly strengthening their connection to the Jewish community.
Although it is commendable that Lizerbram has proactively tried to bring Jewish students together on Shabbat mornings, it is also important to consider the fact that Saturday mornings are meant to be a day of rest and prayer. The Sabbath is the single day of the week that God wanted His people to rest, not work, and to pray, showing gratitude to Him and His blessings. Chai On Life’s alternative Shabbat can therefore detract focus from traditional Sabbath practices. If students are encouraged to go hiking, surfing or golfing on the traditional day of rest, will they forget the true meaning of the holy day of the Sabbath?
Lizerbram’s response to these concerns was both positive and inspiring. He said, “most students only go to Friday night services, if anything at all,” and that “[Chai On Life] will give them a chance to reengage and have meaningful Jewish discussions.” Lizerbram also mentioned the conversation relating to the Torah portion and how it allowed them to reflect on the significance Judaism has in their lives. Lizerbram added, “By facilitating these conversations, I feel the program will give students a desire to expand on their Jewish involvement.”
In encouraging Jewish students to partake in upbeat activities connected to Hillel and Judaism, Lizerbram has broadened the interests of Jewish students at UCLA by showing students that there are alternatives to traditional practices, which also incorporate the spiritual aspects of Judaism. The program is looking forward to more fun events that include more members of the Jewish community at UCLA, like golf for Jews in Greek life this Saturday, Feb. 28, and kayaking for anyone who wants to join on the following week.
To sum it up: “Jews are now recognizing that everyone connects to the religion in their own way and that programs like Chai On Life give uninvolved students the chance to reconnect with the religion,” said Lizerbram.