Updated: Sept. 15, 2015 at 10:58 p.m.
Tucked away in the corner of the second-story porch outside of J Street, Rabbi Yosef Edelstein waves enthusiastically at passing students.
Some students stop by just long enough to grab a free cookie, but just as many tell “Rabbi E” that they’ll see him at Starbucks later and to count them in for Shabbat dinner on Friday.
“I try to reach as many students as I can,” Edelstein said, during a rare lull of curious students. “I want to awaken in them a desire to learn about their heritage in a deeper way.”
Edelstein is the educational director for MEOR, an organization on campus focused on Jewish learning and education. This year, MEOR will be making its presence more permanent with a rabbi living in a new townhouse located at 24th and I streets.
MEOR hosts programs like a 10-week-long, education-intensive fellowship program, Shabbat dinners and trips to Poland and Israel — described in a brochure as “the greatest trip since the Jews left Egypt.”
Edelstein emphasized the education fellowship, which meets once a week in the Marvin Center, as one of the programs that sets MEOR apart from other Jewish organizations on campus, like GW Hillel, which began construction on a multimillion-dollar home on 23rd Street two years ago.
“Our focus is a little narrower than other organizations. We try to focus on students who want to grow their Jewish knowledge and education,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of international trips to his own experience, citing his birthright trip to Israel as a key turning point in his life. It was after that trip that he switched from his background as an English literature major at Harvard University to training to become an Orthodox rabbi.
“I saw more beauty and depth in my Jewish experience than I ever did growing up, and I want students to see that,” Edelstein said.
About 29 percent of GW’s student population identifies as Jewish, placing the University at No. 5 on a list of 60 schools in the country with the largest Jewish populations compiled by Hillel International.
Jeremy Glassman, a senior and the president of MEOR, said he wants to focus on increasing the organization’s visibility and outreach in his last year at GW. He said he is looking at personalized outreach for Greek life, and plans to “ramp up” events, making them more frequent and even pushing for trips to other cities.
“MEOR is a learning experience. It’s a class. It’s a discussion,” Glassman said. “It’s not a spiritual boot camp.”
He also said that having a townhouse on campus will open the door for weekly Shabbat dinners, which are “important for keeping students in the program.”
MEOR had previously leased an apartment near campus to host events.
“Maybe it’s past the student deadline to enroll in the Maimonides [fellowship], but they can still go to the Shabbat dinners, they can meet the new rabbi, they can become involved even though it may not be through the learning program,” Glassman said.
Jordan Goldstein, a junior at GW, went abroad to Israel with MEOR in May of last year and to Poland in January of this year. She said that with the new townhouse, she’ll have easier access to spiritual guidance.
“It’s a place where I can go and see a rabbi, do some learning, get some guidance and be with a family,” Goldstein said.
MEOR has organizations at 21 campuses around the country, six of which are located at GW’s peer schools including American, Tufts and New York universities. It also has partnerships with the Israeli government, providing a gateway for new members and leaders, like Rabbi Nati Stern, to be introduced to the program.
Stern, who recently began living in the townhouse with his wife, moved to D.C. from Jerusalem last week. He said he wasted no time in starting to connect with students in the community.
“My family came here with a mission: to connect, build relationships and be there for the Jewish students at GW in any capacity that we can. Two days after our first night sleeping here, we hosted 10 students for our first Friday night Shabbat meal and hosted a barbecue in the backyard for tons more that Sunday,” he said in an email.
Stern said living on campus will help him build more personal relationships with students, whom he hopes will “feel comfortable to drop by whenever they want.”
“I like to focus on every single person’s skills and strengths because that’s what makes each one of us so unique,” he said.
Stern also said that although the organization has already created a name for itself during its decade-long history at GW, he’ll be looking forward to more ways to connect with the campus as one of its newest residents.
“We are always looking to expand, to grow and build on that. I’ll be walking around campus every day,” he said. “Look for a guy with big glasses and a big smile.”
This post was updated to reflect the following clarification:
While MEOR is looking to grow its on-campus presence, the new townhouse at 24th and I Streets is technically off campus. The Hatchet incorrectly reported that GW Hillel relocated two years ago. The multi-million dollar renovations began in 2013 ago and are expected to be finished next year. We regret this error.