Highlighting Diversity at YU: SCW’s Mechina Panel
Nine Stern College for Women (SCW) students, from places including Kansas, Moscow, Lithuania, Rochester, South Africa, Panama, Uruguay, Illinois and Paris, sat on the third annual Mechina panel on Friday night, April 16. These students from all around the world presented their stories of coming to Yeshiva University and of their religious growth. Though told with different accents and coming from different backgrounds, each of the students proclaimed a deep appreciation for SCW and the Jewish community found at YU.
The panel took place in the Koch Auditorium after Friday night dinner and was moderated by Blaire Ellenberg (SCW ‘21), a Mechina student from Kansas City. The students on the panel began by introducing themselves. Each said where they were from and described the Jewish community where they live. Many of the students on the panel explained that they come from homes that ranged from traditional to secular, and several said they grew up with a strong Jewish identity.
The Mechina Pathways Program was founded 17 years ago by current SCW Associate Dean of Torah Studies Shoshana Schechter, who serves as the director of the program. The program serves to integrate students who did not receive a formal Jewish education prior to coming to Stern. Students take part in the program for two years during which they take introductory courses such as two Bible courses taught by Schechter, Introduction to Judaism taught by Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff and Hebrew language classes for three semesters. After two years, students enroll in regular Jewish Studies courses. The program also includes a beit midrash chavruta program, as well as several shabbatonim.
On the panel, the Mechina students were asked to name their favorite things about Stern. Many of the panelists responded with not having to compromise Jewish values and practices, as well as always having available kosher food. Leah Schewitz (SSSB ‘23), a student from East London, South Africa said, “when I finally got to see what the Jewish bubble is like, I got to appreciate it on a different level because I know what it’s like to stand alone. At Stern you realize how there’s nothing more beautiful than a Jewish community and being surrounded by fellow Jews.”
Other questions asked on the panel included if there is antisemitism where they live, how they get kosher food and how their families reacted to their decision to come to Stern.
“I decided to come to Stern because I wanted to be in a small college where I would be able to grow both academically and spiritually,” said Alex Tolmasov (SCW ‘21), one of the panelists who originates from Moscow, Russia. “I wanted to be part of the panel because it is an amazing opportunity to give a voice to people that are not part of the majority in Stern.”
The panelists ended off by sharing with the audience what they want people to know about the Mechina program. Ellenberg said that it’s important for others to know that many of the students in the Mechina program had to jump over hurdles to be able to come to Stern and she encouraged everyone to get to know the Mechina students and learn more about them.
Schechter continued that sentiment in a later interview with The Commentator. “We take Shabbos for granted,” she said. “We take learning for granted. You see these students who are not only making proactive decisions but many of them are also really sacrificing and demonstrating real mesirat nefesh [self-sacrifice] to be there because often they don’t have the support of their family and friends.”
After the panel, Office of Student Life Program Manager Marjorie Rasinovksy-Albert — a former Mechina student — shared her story of coming to SCW from Brazil.
“Being Jewish and coming from different places is not always the easiest thing and it's always very different,” said Ellenberg. “I find it fascinating, personally, hearing what it’s like to be Jewish in Venezuela, in Panama, and learning about what their cultures are, how they’ve come to New York, what they’ve brought along with them and what they have learned while they’re here. I think that this panel is one of the best programs offered on Shabbat every year and should be continued.”
When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Mechina program, Schechter shared that usually she hosts shabbatonim for her students at her house, but she wasn’t able to do that this year. However, she expressed how amazed she is at how the program was able to thrive and the students were able to connect to each other despite many of them being off campus and not being able to get together for a Shabbaton.
“I was afraid that it was going to affect it in a big way because so much of Mechina is the connection that we forge with each other. Mechina is really about creating a community within a community because most Mechina students come to Stern without knowing anyone,” shared Schechter. “What’s amazing to me is the connection we’ve been able to achieve through learning Torah together even though it started out virtually and even though now half the class is still virtual and half the class is in person.”
Many of the students in the Mechina program expressed their gratitude for the program. “The Mechina Program run by Dean Schechter is what made so many students coming from ‘the outside’ feel so welcome at Yeshiva University,” said Jocelyn Cohen (SSSB ‘23), a student in the Mechina program. “Her classes are a chance to bond and learn Torah. There is absolutely no judgement. My Mechina class is my favorite part of the day. The students and faculty become a family. It is a great program to be a part of.”
Schechter shared why she felt it was important to have this type of panel. “I wanted students from the outside, students who are coming from more typical backgrounds, to appreciate the diversity that we have at Stern and to recognize that there’s such a value in this,” Schechter said. “I think it’s important for Stern students, who tend to be homogeneous, to open their eyes and hearts and they’ll realize that these are students that are such a source of inspiration. And these students will not only not detract from their religious growth, but actually really enhance it when you get to know them.”
“I have people coming up to me still saying ‘thank you so much for doing this panel, it was very inspiring and insightful,’” said Ellenberg. She believes that it’s important for students not in the Mechina program to learn more about it. “Just to hear from other students’ perspective what their life is like at Stern is very eye opening and really is very important to broaden horizons for all students,” she expressed.
“The girls in this community come from various countries, have different Jewish educational backgrounds, and a wide range of Torah observance,” said Lexi Ruiz (SCW ‘23), a student in the Mechina program. “Despite these differences we are brought together by our love for Hashem, our eagerness to learn, and our desire to connect to Klal Yisrael.”
Photo Caption: Brookdale Residence Hall
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University