Long-time best friends share a Gem of an experience!
By Moira Schneider spring, 2006
Long-time friends Debbie Schwartz and Lauren Ronat decided to come on the Gem 2 program together. They had known each other since their teenage years, having met when their mothers belonged to the same ORT chapter in Orlando, Florida, after Lauren’s family relocated from South Africa. Both are now professional women: Debbie is the marketing director for a large insurance company, while Lauren is a talented architect.
Debbie explains what led to their decision to attend together. "Because Lauren lives in Atlanta and I live in Baltimore now, we haven’t had the chance to learn together since we both started becoming more religious - she started first and I went in after her because I thought she’d gotten sucked into a cult!"
"I had attended Jewel earlier in the year and while I loved the classes, the other girls were just that - girls. When I learned about Gem, I knew it would be perfect for us. My husband also came to Israel (he got jealous when I made my plane reservations!!), but I made him stay in a separate apartment with his dad so that Lauren and I could really experience Gem together."
She feels that the experience was definitely more special because of this. "Absolutely!" she stresses, explaining that it was "great coming back to the hotel at the end of the day and talking about what we’d learned and getting to hang out in Jerusalem together during our free time." Shortly after her return to the States, Debbie learned she was pregnant with her first child "so we probably won’t get another opportunity quite like it again", she says.
Lauren shares her friend’s sentiments. "I would definitely say that it enriched the experience to be able to share it with my close friend and to be able to discuss each day’s events and learning. It is such a high to just be in Israel. I relished the learning and the 'shiurim'."
She feels that Gem was "definitely a turning point" for her in her religious observance. Prior to attending the course, she was keeping a kosher home and "almost" keeping 'Shabbat' (she drove to shul).
"After Gem, I started keeping 'Shabbat' and something also clicked for me while 'davening' at the 'Kotel' in that I could all of a sudden say my prayers much easier. I used to struggle reading the Hebrew, and then it seemed all of a sudden I got it.
"The program and Necha Golda (Dubinsky, program director) propelled me to make great strides that I am still making today. Sometimes I think back to how it felt to be there, learning in the Old City, surrounded by 'Kedusha', and it still moves me forward."
Debbie describes her early Jewish education as "Judaism-lite" and says she relished the opportunity Gem gave her to "fill in the blanks." While she was newly "shomer Shabbos" when she came on the course, she says the biggest change that resulted from it was her decision not to wear pants anymore.
"Finding nine great skirts in Jerusalem made me think that 'Hashem' was sending me a message," she quips. After her return to the States, she became "completely" kosher and both Debbie and her husband feel that it is "inevitable" that they will live in Israel one day.
Lauren has some advice for those contemplating embarking on the programme.
"I would suggest that they come with an open mind and an open heart, regardless of religious level.
"The love, warmth, and holiness that is the program should not be experienced through a filter. It is difficult to come without preconceptions and old paradigms," she concedes, "but what an experience to feel everything clearly."
Debbie pronounces Gem to have been "an awesome experience with great teachers and the opportunity to understand what it is like to live in Jerusalem." Would she think of repeating it? "Absolutely - we need one with babysitting!" she replies.
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