By Erica Rachel Sultan, News Editor
I went to YU with one thing in mind: learning Torah. I knew nothing about what I wanted to major in, knew no one with whom I would attend school, knew no Torah or Hebrew — but what I did know was that I wanted so badly to feel a connection with Hashem, and that the way to do this was by learning Torah. So, I spent my summer relearning the Hebrew alphabet, rereading summaries of the most famous stories in Tanach from Chabad.org, packed up most of my belongings and moved into Brookdale in August of 2018.
The second I saw the Hebrew placement exam and the little signs on the hallways in Beren buildings that say “mizrach,”(east) I was scared out of my mind. I could name the letters that I saw: mem, zayin, resh, chet… but what vowels were being used? How do I pronounce this word? Taking in a shaky breath, I passed the signs and walked into the Beit Midrash, the Torah study hall, (another entity I had no prior knowledge of). I was surrounded by hundreds of books, all in that same barely familiar language — I could name the letters, but there was no way I could read the words. I was about to retrace my steps and walk right out of there, but a woman with a bright smile on her face came up to me. She asked: “Are you Mechina?”
Well, indeed I was. I didn’t really know what that meant other than that I would be taking Jewish courses that were “dumbed down” for people like me. But although I was totally right that yes, I am Mechina, I was also totally wrong — Mechina is not just a course program. It’s a community.
I sat down at the end of a very long table in the Beit Midrash. To my right was a girl from Venezuela, where my dad is from, so I thought I’d fit in with her. To my left was a girl from Long Island. Opposite from me was a girl from LA, who sat next to a girl from Delaware, which is not too far from where I grew up! There were some girls from Great Neck as well. And there was even a girl all the way from Lithuania! I remember staring at them and wondering, “Okay, who am I going to become friends with?” Thinking back now, knowing what I know now, it was such a silly question. Because these girls didn’t become my friends. They became my family. All of them.
These are the girls who took the journey with me, and still do. The girl from LA — who, may I foretell, is going to be an Israeli Prime Minister one day — suffered through Hebrew classes with me. The one from Lithuania, who is bound to save many lives in the future, spent my first ever fully-observant Shabbat with me. The one from Great Neck, who has one of the brightest smiles, stayed up late studying with me for our first Judacis final. The one from Long Island, whom I embraced with full force when I randomly ran into her during a trip to Israel, helped me better understand the story of Beresheit (the creation of the world) — my first real studying of the Chumash (Bible)! The one from Delaware, who is such a bright light in my life, went on a trip to Israel with me to study in the Holy Land for a summer. And the one from Venezuela, who always knows how to put a smile on my face, has spent so many Shabbatot learning with me. We’ve all bonded over our backgrounds and our shared resilience in that we Mechina girls are the only ones of our kind at YU. These girls are my family.
And that woman with the smile, Associate Dean Mrs. Schechter — she’s the mother of this family. And Rabbi Hajioff: the father of this family. Not only are Mrs. Schechter and Rabbi Hajioff tzadikim (righteous) for creating this environment for me and the other girls, but also because they always answer my thousand and one questions with grace.
And that’s it: my questions — I’ve had them for as long as I can remember — questions about Hashem (God), about how to live a spiritual and religious life, about how our neshamot (souls) are created, about Rachel and Yaakov’s love in the Torah, about the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), about kashrut (dietary laws), about Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) and his magic ring, about keeping Pesach properly — literally, you name the question and I’ve probably wondered the same thing. My questions have not only been answered by my Mechina family, but welcomed. Invited. Encouraged. Comforted. Everyone has always been treated like they belong. I’ve always been treated like I belong. And I could not be more grateful for this.