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Teaneck trio tops Torah tours

New program fosters relationships between students, shuls

Three Teaneck college students are behind a grass-roots program to inject small Orthodox congregations with regular doses of Sabbath spirit.

Yismichu, which means “they will rejoice,” is the first word in a phrase in the Sabbath liturgy: “They shall rejoice in your kingship — those who keep Shabbat and call it a delight.”

The program started as a light-bulb idea in the head of Eli Shteingart, a 21-year-old pre-dental major at Yeshiva University.

“I’m a big thinker,” said Shteingart, “and I thought it would be cool to make a program to inspire small communities for Shabbos on a regular basis, so that the participants would develop relationships and study partners in those communities, and maybe even one day move into them.”

His idea built on the existing Torah Tours program sponsored by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future. It sends hundreds of undergraduate volunteers to lead singing, dancing, and Torah study in out-of-town congregations for Simchat Torah.

The first Yismichu event in November 2009 took place in Ellenville, N.Y., with Shteingart and five other students recruited by “captains” Chana Salomon, now a Stern College for Women senior, and Moshe Watson. Doron Greenspan of Edison serves as program director.

By December, word had spread and four additional communities expressed an interest. The program grew quickly to encompass 75 student volunteers, who now visit congregations every six weeks in West Hartford and Stamford, Conn.; in New Rochelle, New Hyde Park, and Mount Kisco, N.Y.; and in Springfield, Fair Lawn, and East Windsor. Additional communities participated on a limited basis.

Groups of three to five men and an equal number of women are permanently assigned to each synagogue, where they are hosted by the rabbi or a local family. They are ready and willing to lead services, organize a Friday night “tisch,” speak on the weekly Torah portion, lead discussion groups and children’s groups, and lend a festive, musical note to communal meals throughout Shabbat and on Saturday night.

“These young people are so fantastic,” said Rabbi Eli Rosenzweig of Cong. Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle.

“Last year we had three Yismichu experiences, and this [Jewish] year we have already had two. In December, they did a special youth program with kids in our Sunday school for unaffiliated families. Another time we had a kiddush lunch and they led a panel discussion about being Orthodox in the modern world.”

Anshe Sholom regularly participates in Torah Tours as well, but that program is not geared to fostering ongoing personal relationships. “With Yismichu, they develop deeper ties with our members,” said Rosenzweig.

“I think college students have a lot to offer … communities in connection to a Torah base that we all have fervor and excitement for,” said Salomon. “Yismichu brings enthusiasm into these communities and has proven to be effective in reaching out to the youth and spreading knowledge of YU.”

Erica Chaimowitz, a Stern College junior from Monsey, N.Y., reported to Shteingart after a recent visit to New Hyde Park that she and the other female members of her team got together with the women of the congregation for a festive third Sabbath meal. “Yismichu is bringing simcha [joy], achdus [unity], and ahava [love] to our community of New Hyde Park,” wrote Chaimowitz.

Last month, Yismichu became officially affiliated with NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s international youth movement. This arrangement will give it resources to expand outside the tri-state area, perhaps as far as Memphis, Kansas City, and Denver, said Shteingart.

“When I first started contacting rabbis about this,” he said, “they’d usually ask, ‘What’s the catch?’ But there is really no catch. All they have to pay for is transportation and they get a real inspirational Shabbos out of it.”

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Area YU students take winter-break mission to Israel

They didn’t just show us the nice parts of Israel,” said Teaneck resident Avri Szafranski, speaking about “A Place Called Home,” a program sponsored by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future involving 40 select undergraduates, seven of them from New Jersey.

The week-long service learning winter-break tour was to designed to explore the complex feelings of many diaspora Jews.

Participants met with Israelis with diverse backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political perspectives to learn about the issues surrounding establishing a life in Israel. Among them were longtime citizens, new olim (immigrants), former residents of Gush Katif, foreign workers, settlers, and farmers.

“We believe it is essential that these future leaders experience the realities of Israeli life and politics through the lens of individuals and communities who are trying to build — and rebuild — their homes in Israel,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, CJF dean. “In this way, they will develop a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a citizen of the Jewish state and gain a better understanding of how they — and other diaspora Jews — should relate to Israel.”

The seminar, supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, focused on issues such as how ideologies shape and divide people; balancing Jewish values with humanism and democracy; settling and developing an authentic connection with the land; and the costs and benefits of establishing a life in Israel versus the diaspora.

For Szafranski, a 21-year-old pre-med psychology major, the trip did not resolve his conflict over whether or not to plan a move to Israel.

“It helped paint a realistic picture of the opportunities, the costs, and struggles,” he said. “You think of Israel as a place where everyone is happy, but they took us to [the Tel Aviv neighborhood of] Neve Sha’anan, a ‘ghetto’ for asylum-seekers and refugees who are barely making a living. The question is, is the Jewish state just a place for Jews?”

Regarding this question and others, Stern College for Women junior Shira Preil of Bergenfield was glad to have her community rabbi, Yaakov Neuburger, on the mission. Neuburger, a rosh yeshiva at YU and leader of Cong. Beth Abraham, provided a nightly lesson from traditional Jewish sources relating to each day’s activities.

“It was so helpful to have him there during our debriefing sessions,” said Preil.

Describing herself as “a very rational and logical person,” she said that she hopes to make aliyah and was seeking clarity on the realities of Israeli society. “This program was geared to enlightening people about these issues, and I appreciated the intellectual honesty. Despite the struggles, there is a value to living in Israel, and this program clearly wanted to address that.”

One highlight for both these students was getting acquainted with families still living in temporary caravans in Nitzan since their removal from the Gush Katif area of Gaza by the Israeli government in 2005. They shared their frustrations over how little support they have received from the government to help rebuild their lives.

“I really enjoyed going to Nitzan and volunteering with the teens there,” said Szafranski, who pitched in to paint a youth center. “Most don’t even remember the whole evacuation, and some don’t want to talk about it. I feel we made their day by showing that people —even young adults from America — still care about them. When we were leaving, they all climbed on the bus with us and asked for our Facebook and e-mail [addresses]. It was beautiful.”

Preil noted that the adults, though “angry and disenchanted, still valued the ideal of Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish homeland. You saw their struggle between reality and value.”

The students heard from a group of “old” and “new” immigrants assembled by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliyah from North America. “They all said there are still roles you can play in the diaspora as a Jew, but they got us to think about where we feel the most loyal and where we can do the most good,” said Szafranski.

Preil took away a message that visiting as frequently as possible is vital to maintaining an Israel connection.

“After seminary, I had a strong aliyah drive, and now I’ve become very stable in my life in America, making plans for grad school,” she said. “Being pushed out of that routine shifted my focus back on aliyah again.”

Brander said that CJF programs are intended to inspire students to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large. “We hope that this experience encourages them to consider how they might approach issues like tolerance between religious and secular Jews,” he said, and the disparity between Jewish law and democratic values in their own Jewish communities.”

 
 

Local camera club clicks on ‘trip of a lifetime’

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Rachel Banai with her Nephew Ophir Anya Shostya
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Lining up for a group picture in Old Jerusalem Rachel Banai

When Teaneck photographer Rachel Banai told her Puffin Camera Club students that she was planning her annual trip to visit family at Kibbutz Samar, near Eilat, 11 of them asked to come along.

Banai was surprised, but pleased to have the opportunity to accomplish two aims: “I wanted to improve their photography but also to show them the side of Israel that usually people don’t see.”

The Jewish Standard found the Puffin Camera Club Grand Tour to Israel in grand spirits as they arrived for a night at a Finnish-run bed-and-breakfast northwest of Jerusalem during one leg of the early January trip.

“I thought it was a trip of a lifetime,” said Teaneck resident Gisela Schroeder, a four-year member of the club. She had brought along a Nikon D90 and a Canon S95, explaining that “you never go on a trip with just one camera.”

Banai introduced the group to her extended Samar family during five days at the kibbutz. Each of the participants, nine Jewish and two gentile, had seen Samar’s faces often in Banai’s photos, and now they were able to get acquainted with the people behind the faces.

“The goal was to offer them a grand tour to get to know the people of the south,” Banai said. “Our people had a chance to get to know the members of the kibbutz in their homes and with their children. You had to see them — they didn’t want to leave.”

Franklin Lakes resident Rachelle LaCava, who’d been to Israel 30 years ago, was fascinated by kibbutz life. “It’s hard to understand how you don’t have your own money, and you share everything — what a concept!”

Jane Dineen of Hackensack said the days at Samar with Banai presented “a rare opportunity to experience the culture of a country with a native of that country. Seeing the extent of communal life was extremely interesting.”

Banai planned additional stops of photographic and cultural significance. The group met with a Bedouin woman in the Negev who grows medicinal herbs; marveled at archeological wonders in Petra, Jordan; picked dates at a plantation; visited a lighthouse beach at Eilat; and experienced the Dead Sea, Masada, and Tel Aviv. They explored the natural crater Mitzpe Ramon, ancient copper mines at Timna, and Jerusalem’s Arab marketplace and Old City Jewish and Christian sites.

Their shutters clicked incessantly. Strolling along the Ben Yehuda pedestrian promenade in downtown Jerusalem one evening at dusk, Banai taught the group how best to use available light to take pictures after dark.

“I arranged a trip that would be geared to Jewish and non-Jewish people, not based on tourist places but mostly places to photograph,” she explained. She has been teaching the weekend photography classes for eight years, drawing 35 people from as far as Staten Island and Orangeburg, N.Y.

“I knew it could be very overwhelming for them, but I prepared carefully for this beautiful group of people who, until a while ago, had nothing in common but their interest in photography.”

To survive 10 days together, Banai invented a concept called “purple days,” a code name for times when participants might prefer to be alone. “I told them to say, ‘Today’s my purple day and I don’t feel up to being with the group.’ But nobody had a purple day.”

If anything, purple was just one of the spectacular hues they tried to capture digitally.

Harrington Park resident Rina Goldman remarked that she was highly attuned to light and color during the entire journey. “The mountains, in a matter of an hour, go through wonderful changes. The colors and striations reminded me of Colorado,” said the retired Teaneck High School special education teacher. “I loved the physical beauty of the desert.”

“I’m always seeing light and shadow,” remarked Barbara Jacoby of Teaneck. “On the kibbutz, I saw kids playing on the basketball court and asked if they’d mind if I photographed them, and I ended up taking a video of them on my cell phone to capture their movements.”

“We’re such a great group of talented men and women who enjoy photography,” concluded River Vale resident Debra Davidson. “Taking pictures together was fantastic.”

 
 
 
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