Fellows explore Judaism, modern life

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Two weeks ago, Sarah Levy ’12 turned off her phone and computer for a day and gave herself the opportunity to have a “full Shabbat experience.” Levy, along with 20 other Brown students, enjoyed a home-cooked meal in Rabbi Yitzhak Lurie’s house followed by hours of singing and praying.

“We had many meaningful conversations,” Levy said. “We ate a lot, and we enjoyed each other’s presence without outside technology interrupting our lives.”

The “Shabbaton,” as Lurie calls it, is part of the curriculum of the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program. The program gives Jewish students the resources and the time to fully learn about their cultural background and to understand its relationship to modern issues, Lurie said.

“It’s an opportunity for college students to take an in-depth look at the Jewish view on humanity and the world,” he said.

According to Lurie, the fellowship is a semester-long program that consists of 10 weekly sessions on Tuesdays – each two-and-a-half hours long – two “Shabbatons” and a trip to New York City. Each week, the group meets in Hillel to hear Lurie’s hour-long lecture and then listen to a guest speaker.

“We try to bring in people who have an expertise in the world and who also value their Judaism and show their insights on how to relate them together,” he said.

Each guest speaker touches upon a different topic, which have so far included environmental law and biomedical ethics.

Lurie also offers “one-on-ones” in which both he and his wife, Julie, meet with students.

“We meet students individually at the coffee shop of their choice,” he said. “We discuss anything from what is love really all about to how Judaism views men’s and women’s roles in the world.”

The students receive a $400 cash stipend after completing the program, which should encourage participants’ commitment, Lurie said. The funds come from Jewish philanthropists “who see the value in Jewish wisdom” and would like to give college students the opportunity to explore it, he said.

“Whether it is through charity, through building a Jewish library for themselves, or giving themselves the opportunity to go on an Israel trip, (the money) gives them a chance to manifest that education,” Lurie said. “If the students decide to use it for something else, we assume that it’s because they need it.”

According to Lurie, for most of the current members the compensation is a “side point.” Ben Folit-Weinberg ’09 was interested in the program before he knew about the money, he said. Like the rest of the fellowship members, Folit-Weinberg just wants to better understand the “Jewish mentality.”

“This is a part of my background,” he said. “I have been trying to learn more about the world from many perspectives.”

According to Folit-Weinberg, the program has exposed him to several “sophisticated thinkers,” some of whom he has kept in touch with. He has also been able to learn about topics he was curious about but didn’t have the time to pursue in class.

“I’m grateful that they are offering this sort of intellectual resource,” he said.

The fellowship program is also offered at a number of other universities, including Yale, University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Chicago.

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