Rabbi Binyomin Davis expanded the offerings at the Etz Chaim Center, which has served the community with a variety of educational and spiritually focused programs for the past 26 years.
After his first few months as managing director of Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park, Rabbi Binyomin Davis knew that he needed to go back to school.
In January, Davis and his wife, Gevurah, expanded the offerings at the center, which, according to its website, has served the communities of Elkins Park, Center City, Bala Cynwyd and the Northeast with a variety of educational and spiritually focused programs for the past 26 years. Maimonides, for instance, is a program that educates college students on Judaism and a wide variety of other topics, including medical ethics; a Jewish approach to happiness; and relationships and love as seen through the Torah. The program also introduces participants to a Holocaust survivor and a lone soldier.
“Our goal is for the students to start to examine what it means to be Jewish in the modern world, where do they fit in and ultimately make the choice that being Jewish is something valuable and meaningful and worth investing in,” Davis said. “This program is an antidote to the pervasive trend of widespread Jewish apathy and assimilation. We personally believe that every Jew should make an educated decision about if they want to be Jewish or not. We want them to feel inspired to fall in love with the richness and breadth or meaning and depth and beauty Judaism has to offer.”
Davis, 37, feels the program has had a tremendous impact on the young adults. “It answers life’s big question: Why are we here?” the rabbi said. “How can we achieve happiness? What is the purpose of life? How can we make the world a better place? I think each student will walk away with something different, but hopefully each person will see Judaism for the incredible richness for knowledge, self-improvement and community that it is.”
Maimonides meets every Thursday for two hours, and includes two Shabbatonim. Twenty students are enrolled, most of whom come from Penn State Abington and Bucks County Community College.
“We’re trying to spread Jewish education,” the rabbi said. “We’re hoping to develop relationships with these kids — and hoping they become more active in Jewish life.”
At the end of the program, students will have the opportunity to go on a two-and-a-half-week trip to Israel funded by Olami Worldwide, a nonprofit that funds campus outreach organizations. The center is already looking for applicants for the fall.
Daniel Levit, a native of Haifa, Israel, who lives in the Northeast, is a 20-year-old sophomore at Penn State Abington. He met Davis in November and was instantly drawn to the program because of his desire to learn more about his religion and culture.
“I’m pretty interested in Jewish studies,” Levit said. “Every Jewish kid has to know at least a portion of their background. I personally believe that anyone Jewish has to know about their Jewish identity.”
Listening to Holocaust survivor Itka Frajman Zygmuntowicz’s story is something he will never forget. Zygmuntowicz witnessed all of her family die in Auschwitz.
“She’s a remarkable lady,” he said. “She’s beyond beautiful. She said she wouldn’t have been able to survive if she didn’t believe in God.”
Another interesting topic was Judaism and medical ethics, he said. Levit’s classmate, Sapir Reif, of Lower Moreland, a junior at Penn State Abington, is also a native Israeli. In fact, the 21-year-old spent a semester abroad last spring where she participated in a similar program to Maimonides at Tel Aviv University. She wanted to continue getting in touch with her Jewish heritage.
Like Levit, she was intrigued about Judaism in general, and in medical ethics in particular — specifically, the disparity about ovarian transplants and if a child born from a transplant is Jewish.
“It was an eye-opener for me — ovarian transplants and what faith the child falls into,” Reif said. “Those kinds of dilemmas never occurred to me before.”
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