Vashti Aguilar dove headfirst into Jewish studies – literally. The 19 year-old sophomore at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, had never been particularly observant, but she was always curious about her Judaism. So when an opportunity in January arose to travel to Key Largo, Fla., the diving capital of the world, and partake in a week-long “Snorkel and Study” retreat for college students sponsored by Bais Chana International, Aguilar jumped at the chance – wet suit, mask, fins and all.
“It was a really spiritual experience,” gushes Aguilar, who was born in Venezuela but grew up in the Chicago area. “I’d never been scuba diving and it was just so amazing to be underwater in the ocean and seeing all these wonders of G-d. It really connected to what we were learning. It was really beautiful.”
Snorkel and Study is one of several dozen programs conducted year-round by Bais Chana, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that was founded in 1971 by Rabbi Moshe and Mindy Feller and Rabbi Manis Friedman in Minnesota to provide a non-judgmental and supportive environment for Jewish girls and women to explore Jewish teachings and traditions in a compelling and enlightening way.
Today, it runs satellite programs in cities across North America and abroad, catering to everyone from teenage girls to single moms and offering scholarships for those in need. Listed as one of the top women’s empowerment groups on Greatnonprofits.org, Bais Chana serves Jewish communities all over the world.
“We are always looking to diversify,” says Hinda Leah Sharfstein, who first came to the program as a participant in 1980 and today serves as its executive director. “We do long-weekend programs for teens, women’s programs, programs for single moms. The programs range from five days to three weeks. We also have an advanced learning program for people who have outgrown the entry level classes in their local communities.”
This year’s summer programs include a Women’s Study Retreat in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, a Jewish Un-Camp for teens in Haliburton, Ontario, and a Women’s Advanced Studies Retreat in Minneapolis.
“The experience was intense,” says Diane Hahn, a 67-year-old Jewish educator who divides her time between Wisconsin and Florida and has attended several Bais Chana study retreats over the past six years. “After my first retreat I remember thinking [that] I never knew so much information existed about Judaism! I could not get over the amount of knowledge the people who taught the program had. I could not get enough. It made me more and more aware of the vast amount of ‘Jewishness’ that is out there. For me, it was the beginning of a long journey. I still feel that I have miles to go.”
For Sheerli Rush, a 39-year-old clinical psychologist from Cleveland, Bais Chana offered up the respect and dignity that in her experience as a single mom, was often lacking in the outside secular world.
“From both an emotional and spiritual perspective the experience was life transforming,” declares Rush, who took part in a four-day retreat for single moms. “It completely shifted my perception of my self-worth as a woman and helped me move toward a process of healing.”
From the nutritious and delicious food to the high level of intellectual and academic instruction, the program gave Rush a bolstered sense of self-esteem. This, says Sharfstein, is one of the things Bais Chana does best: make Jewish women feel inspired and whole and that they have much to contribute to society.
“I was nurtured in every way – physically, emotionally and spiritually,” says Rush. “The instructors were brilliant. One specialized in parenting, another one talked to us about intimacy. They addressed topics that were very relevant to where we were in our lives.
“There was an overall sense of respect for where we were in the journey,” she adds. “I left there feeling more grounded. As a single mom you often feel a sense of disconnect, asking yourself, ‘Where do I belong?’ Bais Chana made me stop and think: Yes I do count. Yes I do matter. Yes there is hope for me.”