Mechinah Program Reaches New Milestones, Looks to the Future

By: Shayna Darling  |  March 17, 2014

On a recent Thursday night in February, girls from Stern’s Mechinah program could be found skating across the slick surface of Bryant Park’s ice skating rink. This outing was just one of many events that have been sponsored throughout the year for a group of girls on campus whose presence is not known for its size, but for its constant enthusiasm for Judaism.

While it may be easy to fall into the trap of believing that every Stern girl’s life follows a similar pattern of attending a Jewish day school and spending a year abroad in seminary, there are many girls whose current enrollment in Stern came about from a circuitous and often times unexpected process; one that is derived from a leap of faith and from a proactive decision to enrich their Jewish lives. These are the girls of Stern’s Mechinah program, which caters to students who did not attend Jewish day schools and which is working this semester to continue to expand in size and to strengthen its presence on campus.

The Mechinah Program, whose uptown equivalent is known as JSS, is spearheaded by Mrs. Shoshana Schechter, current director of the program and Bible teacher at Stern.

When still a Stern student, Schechter was shocked to discover that many of her peers came to Stern without a Jewish background or a support system, and that they struggled to find Judaic classes that catered to their skill sets and backgrounds. She began to vocalize the need for Stern to accommodate the many different types of girls who attend the university.

A few years later, after Mrs. Schechter had already graduated from Columbia’s School of Journalism, she began teaching beginner-level Judaic classes at Stern. It was around this time that Richard Joel became president of Yeshiva University. As a former president and international director of Hillel with years of experience reaching out to young adults and building Jewish life on the university campus, he was concerned that there was no Stern equivalent to the JSS program. With his encouragement and with the efforts of Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, current chair of the Jewish studies department, the Mechina program began to take form and Schechter was chosen to direct it.

Today, Mechinah now holds an important presence on campus. Whereas in its early years there was an average of seven Mechinah students, there are now around 30 per year. The Mechinah program encompasses both in-class and extracurricular opportunities, and includes classes taught by Mrs. Schechter and Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff, Shabbatons, a chavrutah or learning partner program, and other fun extracurricular events. But above all, it gives students coming to Stern with similar backgrounds the ability to develop close bonds with each other and with teachers, and to inspire one another. As Mrs. Schechter remarked, “It’s not just about having classes on a certain level, it’s about community.”

The Mechinah program is currently headed by co-Presidents Michelle Navon (’14) and Lea Bekhar (’14). Navon, who started out at Stern as a true freshman and is now finishing up her fourth year, remarked that “Mechinah has made a huge impact on my life. If it wasn’t for this program, I would never have thought to attend Stern.”  Bekhar, also a senior, commented that Mechina is a great platform to unite people with similar interests and to provide support and advice. “Mechinah for me has been a family,” she said. Lee Sahar, a current Mechinah member, echoed Bekhar’s sentiments: “Mechina is my immediate family in Stern; it’s who I turn to when I need my dose of support.”

Mechinah has many events throughout the year, some of which are co-sponsored by JSS. This includes shiurim, holiday events such as donut decorating for Hanukkah,  Shabbatons with inspiring Rabbis, Rebbetzins, and teachers, and get-togethers like the recent ice skating event.

There is one event—or more precisely, a program—that is seemingly the culmination of all that Mechinah has to offer: July in Jerusalem. Generously sponsored by donor Mary Schwartz, July in Jerusalem ranges between a few weeks to a month long and encapsulates the seminary and yeshiva experience in a limited amount of time. Open to both JSS and Mechinah students, it is an invigorating and exciting summer program that features classes in the morning, and different trips and volunteer opportunities later in the day. Students who attend July in Jerusalem truly form a cohesive unit, and past years have shown that they are more likely to become Mechinah leaders on campus. July in Jerusalem will be running this summer from July 28th through August 13th, and is actively looking for those who are interested.