Eight Torah Academy of Bergen County high school students on an OU relief mission to Israel listened intently as a young Border Patrol officer described his dangerous work in eastern Jerusalem identifying terrorists and breaking up riots.
The TABC students asked the officer, “Did you choose to serve in this unit?” When he said that he did, they asked why.
“Well, if you like going to the Kotel and Ben Yehuda Street, someone has to be playing this role to keep you safe,” he explained.
TABC’s associate principal, Rabbi Steven Finkelstein, said that his students learned something profound from that short encounter and from similar ones with “ordinary Israelis” throughout the mission.
“Everyone in Israel seems to have an understanding that life is about more than just your own success,” he said. “Everyone is living for something greater than themselves. It’s very humbling.
“The boys could see that everyone is full of resolve and determination. That even came through at the shiva visits we paid. When we met with Jen Airly, whose son Binyamin was killed in battle, it was not sadness that we saw, just pride in her son. That was unbelievable.
“Here, outside of Israel, the mood in the Jewish community is more tense, nervous, and down. We don’t need to have that determination; we can focus on how tragic and scary everything is. In Israel, the overwhelming takeaway was that we met hundreds of people, and not one person had any focus on themselves or their comfort.”
He said that he and the students were awed by the strength and optimism displayed by severely wounded soldiers they visited at Sheba Medical Center.
“On behalf of the teens, I asked these soldiers if they would do it all over again,” Rabbi Ethan Katz of Bergenfield said. Rabbi Katz, the Orthodox Union’s director of relief missions, organized the trip and accompanied the boys along with Rabbi Finkelstein.
“Not only did they say they would absolutely do it again, they encouraged the boys to make aliyah and to join the army,” Rabbi Katz said. “Every person we met spoke about having no regrets. It really impacted the teens.”
The participants, all juniors and seniors at the Teaneck high school for boys, were Yonatan Brothman, Aron Major, Jonah Miller, and Benny Zelig of Teaneck; Aryeh Eizikovitz and Eytan Kirschenbaum of Bergenfield; Dani Needle of Passaic, and Josh Schneider of Staten Island.
These eight students were selected for the school-subsidized mission because they have been actively involved in TABC Israel relief efforts, including packing clothing, tzedakah drives, and letter-writing, since the day after the Hamas attacks on October 7.
Eytan has been sending a daily newsletter update to the student body about the situation in Israel since the start of the war. Before he left on the mission, he assumed that the mood in Israel was overwhelmingly somber.
“Once I got there and saw everything in person, it was much more meaningful,” he said. “Some of the sad stories were more inspiring, like the injured soldiers we met, who said they wouldn’t hesitate to serve the country again. I also found it safer in Israel, even though it’s wartime. In America, there are so many people against us, especially on social media. When you’re in Israel, everyone’s on the same team. No one is going to approach you on the street and threaten you because you’re Jewish.”
Aron said he was surprised by the mood of the citizenry.
“You could definitely tell that there is a war going on, but people aren’t mourning the whole time,” he said. “Even though many are in pain, they are translating that pain to optimism. Everyone was very friendly to us and happy that we were there.”
TABC was the first high school in North America to participate in an OU relief mission to Israel for teens, spearheaded by TABC’s rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Joshua Kahn; its executive director, Judah Rosenbaum, and Rabbi Finkelstein.
“As a school and as a community, we are all feeling the pull to be in Israel,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “We really just wanted to be there at this time, even for just a few days. I couldn’t imagine that there would be anything more powerful for these Jewish teenagers than to feel the unity in Israel during this period, and they really experienced it.”
Previously, TABC participated in OU relief missions to Texas, New Orleans, and, most recently, Romania, where they helped Jewish Ukrainian refugees move from a hotel to more permanent housing.
Rabbi Finkelstein, who has a social work practice, said that chesed — acts of kindness and compassion — are an important part of the school’s program. “We budget every year for a number of smaller and sometimes more major trips. These are life-altering experiences for the boys.”
The language barrier was less of an issue in Israel than it had been in Romania, as all eight boys were able to converse on some level with the Israelis they met. But Rabbi Finkelstein said that what they do always speaks louder than words.
“You see on all these trips that the language of love breaks down a lot of barriers. People are just gratified knowing that fellow Jews came from halfway around the world.”
Dani Needle admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when he committed to the mission.
“I didn’t know what the environment and culture would be like in Israel,” he said. “It’s a crazy idea to think that everyone is running to a war zone just to help out. But once I was there, I felt, how can I not be here? Especially when you hear from soldiers who have lost limbs that they would do it over again.”
The mission ran from December 12 to 16, encompassing the last half of Chanukah.
The contingent brought 300 thermal shirts and protein bars for soldiers, as well as toys and games to distribute at the hotels, which they purchased with funds collected from TABC tzedakah drives.
Their itinerary included boxing up food for needy families, packing beef jerky for soldiers, meeting families of hostages, making a shiva visit in Jerusalem to a family mourning their soldier son, preparing cucumber vines for planting in a greenhouse, leading a Chanukah carnival for southern evacuees at a hotel near Jerusalem, running a barbecue at an army base, and interacting with hundreds of evacuees from Sderot and Kfar Maimon at two Jerusalem hotels over Shabbat.
Among other victims of October 7 who spoke with the visitors was Amichai Schindler from Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on the Gaza border. Hamas terrorists blew off Mr. Schindler’s hands as he struggled to hold his family’s bomb shelter door closed.
Mr. Schindler said he and his wife, Avital, don’t focus on what they’ve lost, but rather on what they have — their lives, their land, and their ability to serve God. His sole challenge now, he maintained, is to determine his new purpose in life.
“The people who went through trauma aren’t allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with grief, and their courage pushed us to follow the tone they set,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “To go to a war zone and feel inspired to want to be there — that’s surprising.”
Some of the most memorable moments were unplanned.
“We were at a falafel restaurant in Modi’in for lunch,” the rabbi related. “A sign said that soldiers and security forces members eat for free, and the restaurant will match donations of anyone who sponsors a falafel. The boys eagerly pooled as much of their money as they could to support the endeavor.”
On the final night, after spending hours at a hotel on Shabbat engaging with children and teens, the boys were told that they’d go out for dinner before leaving for the airport. But they told Rabbi Finkelstein they weren’t done with their mission.
“They said they still had a bunch of toys and games that they hadn’t yet distributed, and asked if we could skip the dinner and return to the hotel to hand them out,” he said.
Dani explained that he and his friends felt “there were still kids at the hotel who needed someone to play with. I now understand the degree to which everyone there needed, and still needs, our help.”
Rabbi Finkelstein said this incident proved the success of the mission. “They were able to move past themselves and, most importantly, to realize and appreciate the power they have, even in some small way, to impact the lives around them. I knew then that they had understood and internalized the ‘living beyond yourself’ message.”
“The most important lesson I took home from the trip is that no matter what type of background you have, as Jews we always come together during tragedies, and at the end of the day, we’re stronger together,” Aron said.
“Even though we’re back here, we still feel like we’re in Israel right now,” Dani added. ‘Part of us is still there.”
The students are processing what they experienced with teachers and peers. Some have spoken about the mission in their classes and all will be sharing impressions from the trip at a school-wide assembly.
“Our hope was that these eight students would come back and use their experience to reenergize their fellow students and community,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “They are now charged with continuing letter-writing campaigns to media outlets and political leaders and initiating new tzedakah drives — whatever needs to be done and whatever we can do from here.”
He noted that there is a logistics center across the street from TABC, where the nonprofit organization Lev Echad prepares to ship such items as thermal underwear for Israeli soldiers. Many students went there last week, in answer to a call for volunteers, to unload a truck and load duffel bags for shipping.
“As we go into our January break, there will be a push for extra learning in the merit of Israeli soldiers and hostages,” Rabbi Finkelstein said.