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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