Growing up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Rick Fox had a very limited Jewish background. While not understanding more than a few words of Hebrew, and admitting that “I thought Judaism was gefilte fish and hamentashen,” Fox was certainly thriving in his secular educational endeavors.His hard work in the classroom paid off, as he was accepted into the prestigious University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, a top Ivy League institution.With dreams of a career in business marketing, Fox, who also had a knack and appreciation for comedy, decided to register for a course in Jewish humor during his sophomore year. While ironically, he “didn’t find the class funny,” it was perhaps an interruption during a discussion with classmates that changed his life forever.
“I was sitting with some friends talking about comedy and this frum [religious]-looking Jewish man interjected himself into our conversation,” says Fox, adding that the stranger asked: “Do you boys want to hear some good Jewish humor?” After telling some Jewish-themed jokes that had the students rolling with laughter, the man introduced himself as Rabbi Shmuel Lynn, a former Hollywood comedy writer, who after a life transformation was now serving as a rabbi at Penn, specifically as the program director of an on-campus organization known as the MEOR Foundation.MEOR is a Jewish organization with a presence at 21 leading universities in the US, whose mission, according to board chairman Tom Steinberg, “is to demonstrate the beauty, sophistication and relevance of Jewish wisdom to students on American university campuses, in a way that inspires and empowers them to be future Jewish leaders.”Steinberg says that MEOR accomplishes its goal by offering a wide variety of Jewish educational programming on campus, as well as education-based trips to Israel and other communities around the world, where Jewish history and influence were and are prominent.“What MEOR does,” Steinberg explains, “is we take students with little or no background [in Judaism], and expose them to texts and deeper thought, and after four years they come out [of college] with a lot of information and the skills to prepare them to become Jewish leaders. We want our students to take their interests, their capabilities and strengths, and apply what Judaism has to offer in their own lives in order to achieve fulfillment.”Debra Kodish, MEOR’s executive director in Israel, adds that all in all, “the organization touches the lives of more than 4,000 US students a year through its events and programming.”The courses themselves, notes Steinberg, are just the tip of the iceberg. He describes in detail the close relationships which develop between the students and the MEOR campus rabbis and educators, which help provide the students with a new outlook on Judaism and on life.As Steinberg says, “The rabbis and other highly intellectual educators on campus have a level of commitment to their work which is extraordinary. The student has to feel that the educator is not only a teacher, but someone who cares deeply about them. We have students showing up at their teachers’ houses at midnight to talk about their futures, boy/girlfriends, or looking for guidance. These one-on-one relationships are not based on theoretical knowledge, but on concepts which are applied to real life.”Fox’s story is a prime example of the type of relationship referenced by Steinberg.He says that as a result of that initial encounter with Rabbi Lynn, a connection was formed. “He [Lynn] was hilarious.He was light and funny. I thought rabbis were supposed to be untouchable creatures, but he was so real and approachable.I never met anyone like that, who broke down those barriers.”A beautiful relationship was developed, recounts Fox, and he began learning with the rabbi on a regular basis utilizing the MEOR curriculum, which Fox says resulted in “debunking everything I thought I knew about Judaism.”The learning continued even as Fox graduated from Wharton in 2007, and moved to Manhattan after accepting a job in marketing. Not only did Fox and Lynn stay connected through their learning, with the rabbi visiting often, but Fox decided to enroll in the New York University branch of MEOR’s flagship program, known as Maimonides.According to Steinberg, “Maimonides is a program in which over 1,000 students a year devote three hours per week attending classes on a wide range of relevant topics, in which they learn the basics of Judaism, and hear from prominent Jewish lay leaders who speak about why Judaism is relevant.”Kodish gives examples of some of the classes offered through Maimonides, whose focus ranges from the foundations of Jewish philosophy to contemporary Jewish issues to the dynamics of leadership, among others.“Our courses include thought-provoking titles, such as: ‘Why Be Jewish? Isn’t it Enough Just to Be a Nice Guy?’ and ‘Finding Greatness Within.’ These topics are empowering. I can’t think of any students who haven’t experienced change coming out of these classes. ” With regard to the participation of community lay leaders in the program, Steinberg explains that this diverse group of speakers from all walks of life includes some of the country’s most accomplished professionals, who “share why Jewish principles and values are critical to their own everyday activities, and why Judaism is a central part of their lives. These talks truly capture the attention of the students.”Kodish adds that what’s most impressive about MEOR is the student’s level of commitment in attending.While certain MEOR events are open to the general public, she says, “The Maimonides program, for example, is 90 hours of class time in which students are not getting academic credit.” She thinks it says a lot that students elect on their own to participate, especially at these top universities where their school course loads are already extremely full.Fox says that after four years working in New York while at the same time continuing to grow in his knowledge of Judaism through MEOR programming, he decided to come to Israel for additional Jewish study.He recently enrolled at an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem and spends a good portion of his day studying.He just got married, and plans to return to the US soon in order to, in his words, “be a light there.” Fox adds, “I want to be a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) for the next generation of Jews as well as non- Jews, in order to help break social barriers about what people think about Jews.”Fox credits MEOR for the changes in which he views life. “What MEOR did for me was to develop the intellectual side [of Judaism], to bring it up to par. I was at the top in terms of secular knowledge, but my Judaism was on the level of a kindergartener. The learning and the opportunity to ask questions – that is what drove me to stay connected to MEOR, and what made Judaism have a lasting impact on me.”SABRINA NEWMAN, who lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and owns a women’s lifestyle website, also says that MEOR’s Maimonides program at New York University changed her life.Growing up in Livingston, New Jersey, as a “Conservadox” Jew, Newman says that “MEOR is an incredible program which helped me see the more practical side to Judaism. I always thought Judaism was archaic and dry, with no meaning behind it.” But soon after giving it a try, Newman says that attending MEOR became “the highlight of my week. The classes helped me develop my relationship to Judaism, and added value to my life in general. I learned how to treat other people, improve interpersonal relationships, as well as the importance of self-worth.”Newman says that while she used to view Judaism as a burden, whether because of dietary restrictions or sitting bored in a synagogue, “MEOR made me see that [Jewish] tradition is a blessing and not a nuisance in my life.”After graduation, Newman spent a year studying at a Jerusalem seminary and even worked as a counselor, staffing a MEOR Israel trip. The annual three-week MEOR Israel trips, which draw hundreds of students, combine daily in-depth classes on Judaism with firsthand exploration of the Land of Israel.Back in New York, Newman says that she still attends MEOR shabbatonim on weekends as a volunteer adviser, in order to share her experiences with new MEOR students.What Steinberg sees as a key component to the program is not only what the students get from MEOR while on campus, but what they accomplish as a result of the program after graduation.“After four years, the students come out of MEOR with a lot of information and a lot of skills to prepare them to become Jewish leaders. During those years, we are constantly following up with the students to learn what they have seen, what they have enjoyed, and what makes sense for them to be involved with at the next level. When students go on to grad schools, [we hope] they carry over what they’ve learned. Therefore, we follow up with the students and give them individual attention. This is not a program where we expose them [to Judaism] and just let them go.”