From Sammi Merenfeld’s speech at the Machon L’Yahadus graduation
Growing up I definitely identified with being a Jew but it didn’t define me. It was always in my surroundings but not penetrating on a deeper level.
That was, until my brothers became Chabad Lubavitcher Chasidim when I was nine or 10. While the immediate effect was minimal on my life, I did enjoy spending time with them. Whether it was at a Shabbat meal or inside a Sukka didn’t matter to me, when your brothers are 10 years older than you and in yeshiva they are the coolest people in the world.
Fast forward 10 years. I had spent four years in and out of college with a handful of people I called “friends,” two jobs I loved, three siblings who were Lubavichers (my older sister followed in my brothers’ footsteps), and in an intense relationship.
But, I hadn’t finished college in those four years, I questioned my friends’ integrity, and I knew that my jobs and relationship weren’t going to be permanent.
I never felt like I needed change. I was always comfortable with my routine and personal agenda, but I definitely was not satisfied. I always felt like I had something missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
So what changed? On the day of my sister’s wedding in October of 2015, I took a long look in the mirror and asked myself “What are you doing with yourself?”
The following day, much to OUR surprise I asked my sister, “Why did you decide to go to study at Machon L’Yahadus?” Her answer was very simple and logical and good enough for me. She told me that if we’re Jewish why shouldn’t we act like it.
My curiosity was piqued and I spent the next few days questioning my siblings about why and how they ended up living the Lubavitch lifestyle. After receiving a very similar answer to what I got from my sister, I started to question why I in fact don’t “act Jewish.” These answers resonated with me and before I knew it the floodgates opened and I finally uttered the words,“I think I want to go to learn at Machon L’Yahadus.”
I called Mrs. Yehudis Cohen (assistant principal) who enthusiastically shared information the upcoming Winter Program or even the spring Taste of Yeshiva. I said “no” to both and thought long and hard about why I refused to come even though I know I wanted to. Mrs. Cohen questioned what was holding me back and for the first time in my life I had an “AHA” moment. What held me back was that I knew I would be hooked once I came and my life would change forever; I couldn’t commit to such a change even though I knew I wanted it.
After a conversation with Rabbi Shloma Majeski, principal of Machon L’Yahadus, I was sure that nothing would change if I didn’t want it to and there was no harm in coming. I decided to come in the Fall, a good eight months away from when we were having the conversation. So then it was final, and in September 2016, I arrived to Crown Heights and started unpacking my suitcase at a girls only dorm on President Street. The streets were familiar because of my siblings who had preceded me but that was about all I had going for me.
It feels like yesterday, I can relive the nerves and conversations with the girls if I close my eyes. My roommate and I unpacking side-by-side sharing pieces of our lives and how we ended up here. I remember her trying to convince me what a life changing experience this will be for both of us. “You’re going to grow here” is what she said to me. I rolled my eyes and mumbled a silent “whatever.” I couldn’t believe her, thinking I would be on the next plane out and back to Florida. I was only there for a brief trial run.
I hate to admit when other people are right, but when you know, you know. What I know now is that my roommate was right because you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you take a step back and see where you started.
My friend Eliana says that you can be in school for most of your life and never learn how to be a good person. This is true and even more obvious coming from a secular school system to a school whose foundation is based on Torah. Machon L’Yahadus teaches you not just the practical – which blessing to make when lighting candles on the holiday, or which cheese you have to wait 6 hours for, or even how to be patient when waiting for the washing machine, not that these aren’t all valuable skills to have.
There’s no scale to judge which is more important, but if it wasn’t for Machon L’Yahadus I would never know how to treat another person with ahavat Yisrael (love) no matter how crazy they make you, how to identity your rough edges and refine them in a way you didn’t realize was even necessary, how to integrate the Torah into your life in a healthy way that makes sense, and most importantly to respect and listen to your parents, teachers, and friends because without them, this experience wouldn’t be happening. We’re here to inspire each other to do good and be good, and to use your strengths and weaknesses to help each other and ourselves. I couldn’t be more proud to have the privilege to study here under Rabbi Majeski, Mrs. Cohen, Mrs. Nemni, and the rest of our amazing all-star staff that surround me every day, and especially all the girls with the same goals.
This hasn’t been the easiest year of my life, but that’s what this is about. Challenges are meant to be recognized and not run away from. G-d trusts us to make the right decisions and gives us the strength to overcome the challenges we’re faced with. Like swimming in an ocean against the current, the work-out is better when you’re not just being pushed to the shore. G-d appreciates the effort and rewards us for it.
Tanya teaches that the mind rules over the heart, but sometimes it’s not in sync. I came to Machon L’Yahadus planning to only be here for a month, because my heart was content in Florida, while my mind was living like a Jew. Well, one month turned into two, turned into me standing at graduation telling my story because my mind knows that this is where I need to be and my heart agrees to the fullest. And I’ll be back next year!