Into the Depths: Jewish Women Find Self Through Study and Snorkel


by Dvora Lakein - Key Largo, Florida

January 12, 2009

(lubavitch.com) People use the expression ‘out of this world,’ and I never understood it before,” says Lauren Kraft, a senior at Arizona State University. “But this was definitely an out of this world experience: it was like an eight-day Shabbat.”

Snorkel and Study, a project of Bais Chana International, completed its fourth annual college women’s retreat in Key Largo, Florida, Thursday. Coordinator Estee Behrman says that the event, the largest ever, included 90 students from campuses around the globe. Behrman recruited participants at the annual campus Shabbaton in Crown Heights, via Facebook, and by visiting several universities. In fact, explains Behrman, “the program is successful only because organizers and campus shluchim work hand in hand, encouraging and supporting girls to attend.”

The sell was not a tough one. A week of water sports, study, and friendship, all with an unbeatable price tag: free, thanks to very generous supporters.  

“I could not have come without the scholarship,” says Kraft. “It is amazing. All they want to do is to give us information; their entire goal is to teach me everything I want to know. This is so different from the academic world I am in, where you have to fight to get accepted or to have access to information. The emphasis on education is beautiful.”

“Women coming to Bais Chana are looking to explore Judaism and get a perspective on Jewish spirituality,” explains director, Hinda Leah Sharfstein. “There is the freedom here to be who you are and ask what you want.” Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean and principal lecturer, describes the week as a, “a multi-layered experience where they gain respect for themselves as women, as Jews, and as future mothers and leaders.”

 

Sharfstein discovered her own potential 28 years ago when she first came to Bais Chana as a college student. Time, she says, has not altered much. In the last 20 years, Sharfstein has organized hundreds of women’s retreats and programs. “The core of the Jewish woman has not changed,” she asserts, “women are always looking for wisdom and truth. But different environmental factors, such as politics, the media, and self-doubt, obviously play a part in describing contemporary women.” 

“If the type of woman who came to this program is any indication,” states Rivkah Slonim, “today’s young Jewish women are bright, exuberant, and ambitious.” Slonim would know. Together with her husband, Aharon, she has co-directed Chabad at Binghamton University since 1985. She has also authored two bestselling anthologies concerning women’s issues.  In her many years of experience, playing host and heart to thousands of students, she has found that “young adults want to make a living, but they also want to make a life. In coming [to Chabad] they are searching for that deeper meaning.”

 

This past week, Slonim, a Chassidic feminist, spoke about the woman’s place in Jewish law, the Chassidic perspective on intimacy, and medical ethics and Jewish law. Other hot topics such as the “sexual and sacred” and the “power of sisterhood” shared the roster with comprehensive Tanya lessons and a discussion on the Chassidic approach to joy.

With a double-major in women and gender studies and political science, Kraft arrived in Florida, “looking to find balance as a feminist and as a Jewish woman.” She had heard of Slonim and was looking forward to meeting her. “Mainstream feminism does not do religious women justice. It was important for me to get the Jewish feminist perspective on women in Judaism.” She found it in Slonim—“I had important conversations with Rivkah, and I now understand where religious women are coming from.”

Lecture material seeped out of the classrooms and onto sunny decks and late-night pillow talks. For many attendees, the companionship was central. “Since I changed my major to the sciences, I haven’t met many Jews, let alone Jewish girls,” declares University of Wisconsin sophomore, Elisheva Scheibengraber. “It was an amazing opportunity to spend a week with 90 Jewish girls. Just sitting and talking for hours was so much fun.”   

“It is Miriam Lipskier’s personality and experience as a Chabad representative to Emory University that really attracted the girls,” explains Behrman. “They were able to connect with her during classes and on a personal level in private sessions.” 

“One of the things we talked about a lot was intermarriage,” says Kraft. “Many of us came here thinking that limiting ourselves to marrying only Jews was racist and restrictive. This time last year, I would never have considered not marrying someone based on their religion. Now,” she reflects, “I am definitely at the point where it is a serious consideration. It is a step; it is where many of the girls are at now. Yes, I do want to marry Jewish.”

Sweeping palm trees and calm waters complemented the week of study perfectly. “The program is brilliant. We spend time talking about the miracle of creation, but we also see it and feel it,” declares Kraft.

“We went on a snorkeling trip, which is something I have done many times. This time, though, I saw divinity. I thought about the beauty around me and I thought about its Creator. There we were, ten girls in snorkel gear, thanking G-d in the middle of the ocean.”

“It was a genuine, organic moment.”

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