Some 150 public-school teenagers from around the country will forgo ski trips and New Year’s parties during their winter vacations next week to study Torah with NCSY and spend New Year’s Eve at a shabbaton in Teaneck.
Tuesday marks the first day of the Yarchei Kallah, an annual study program geared toward NCSY teenagers from non-Orthodox backgrounds. Students will hear speakers from around the world, including scholar-in-residence Rabbi Menachem Nissel of Jerusalem, at the Hilton Hotel in Stamford, Conn., during the five-day program. In the past, NCSY leaders have made Shabbat in the hotel for the students, but this year they wanted to provide a different experience. On Friday, Dec. 31, the students will arrive in Teaneck for a Shabbaton at Cong. Keter Torah, where many of the students will have their first “authentic Shabbat experience,” according to organizers.
“This year, instead of creating our own atmosphere for Shabbat, we wanted to expose the kids to a Shabbat-observant community,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of NCSY New Jersey.
Part of the experience will be challenging perceptions of what an Orthodox community is like. Teaneck is a prime example of a community that is full of “highly educated and sophisticated modern people who embrace a Torah way of life,” Glasser said.
“The Teaneck community really has the capacity over this weekend to completely shift the impressions and the experiences of these kids as they relate to Torah Judaism,” he said.
About 2,000 students participate in NCSY across New Jersey, but only 50 percent are from Orthodox backgrounds. Programs focus on concepts such as chesed and tzedakah, rather than heavy study that would require a day-school background.
“The non-religious kids meet Jewish teenagers who are from a religious background who are cool, who are normal, who are sophisticated,” Glasser said. “It demystifies for them what it means to be a religious Jew.”
Orthodox students and families who participate will benefit as well, Glasser said, by seeing the reactions of teenagers for whom religious observance is not routine. Orthodox teenagers can sometimes become complacent about their religious observance, he said, and when the non-Orthodox students see that religion and modernity can co-exist, the Orthodox students are reinvigorated by the enthusiasm around them.
“When we walk into Keter Torah on Friday night for kabbalat Shabbat and there is singing and dancing and enthusiastic embrace of the Shabbat experience, that is going to be an experience created by nonreligious students for religious people,” he said. “When they see that enthusiasm and that passion and that commitment, that is something that is going to make a mark on their own religious experience.”
Rabbi Shalom Baum, religious leader of Keter Torah, looks forward to welcoming the students and giving them a taste of the Orthodox community. He will lead a discussion on Friday night about WikiLeaks and Jewish views on privacy.
“We sometimes take our rituals and our everyday lives for granted,” Baum said. “Hopefully, the participants of the NCSY program will meet teenagers who are very engaged with society and the realities of contemporary life, but also with fidelity to Torah values.”
The Shabbaton is not about pushing Orthodoxy, Baum emphasized, but creating social opportunities for the students beyond their normal circles. It is also an opportunity for his congregants to meet people from the broader Jewish community, he said. The rabbi sees the program as part of his synagogue’s mission of outreach.
“I don’t see it as a missionizing attempt,” Baum said. “It shouldn’t be an attempt to ‘show them the way.’ The basic approach is the inherent value of socializing with as broad a population of Jews as possible.”
In addition to Baum, Friday night will include a “Jew Year’s Eve” oneg.
“We’re going to create a New Year’s for a group of kids used to celebrating with parties, and we’re going to do it from a Jewish experience,” Glasser said.