|Noam Shalit (with bare head) stops his convoy to greet NCSY Kollel campers. Over Shalit’s right shoulder in a blue-striped shirt is Doron Levine of Teaneck. Behind Doron, in a white shirt, is counselor Corey Fuchs of Teaneck. Yosef Brander of Teaneck can be seen to the left of the boy in the red-and-white-striped shirt in the foreground.|
BEIT MEIR, ISRAEL ““ For four years now, Tzvika Poleyeff of Englewood has been praying for IDF Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, an Armored Corps soldier captured by Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip on June 25, 2006, and held hostage ever since.
But the plight of Shalit and his family took on a new dimension for Tzvika – a Torah Academy of Bergen County junior – when he and fellow campers in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (Orthodox Union) Kollel program met Noam Shalit, the captive’s father. Shalit was at the head of a mass 12-day march at the beginning of July in support of efforts to release the soldier.
According to Teaneck native Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, the kollel director, the 150 high school boys and their counselors were emotionally overwhelmed by the experience.
“We were aware of the march and we checked the itinerary and saw the Shalits would be passing through Beit Meir,” said Benovitz. This village 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem accommodates the kollel program during the summer on the campus of Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim. It was along the route taken by the hundreds of marchers making their way from the Shalits’ hometown of Mitzpe Hila in the north to Jerusalem.
“We realized that even though this was not a formal stop, it would be an opportunity for our NCSYers that we could not pass up, just to lend support by showing him we were with him.”
Organizers told Benovitz not to expect any personal interaction as Noam and Aviva Shalit’s motorcade came by, but “Noam had the driver stop the car when he saw our boys standing there,” Benovitz said. He got out of the car and greeted the campers, explaining that the purpose of the march was to raise awareness for his son and to make sure he is not forgotten. On Aug. 28, Gilad Shalit will turn 24.
“Since his capture, I have been praying for Gilad. Watching his family drive by and listening to his father speak, the entire situation suddenly became very real to me,” said Tzvika.
Akiva Blumenthal of Teaneck said he was struck by the difference between the campers’ situation and that of the captive’s family. “We waited on the road for 15 minutes or so, and it was an uncomfortably hot day,” said the Yeshiva University High School for Boys junior. “When the Shalits pulled up, it occurred to me that those 15 minutes are a tiny fraction of the awful years of waiting the Shalits have endured.”
Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, a Bergenfield resident and camp rabbi, taught part of his morning class while the boys stood outside. The kollel program combines seven hours of Torah study with three and a half of sports five days a week and also encompasses touring. After the encounter with Noam Shalit, many of the teachers encouraged the boys to continue focusing on Gilad Shalit in their learning and prayers, and “to bring back home the message that we should not forget about him,” said Benovitz.
The campers were painfully aware of the dilemma facing Israel’s government, which is under pressure to release thousands of imprisoned terrorists in exchange for Shalit – a situation that many Israelis fear would result in further kidnappings and terrorist attacks. “If getting him out will cost a lot, it might not be worth it, but we all want him to get freed somehow,” said Tzvika.
“We must do everything we can to ease the pain and suffering of the Shalits, and to reduce the dangers of any family having to go through this again,” added Shaul Morrison of Bergenfield. Shaul, an incoming Torah Academy senior, said meeting Noam Shalit made the boys rethink their positions on the prisoner exchange plan. “A lot of people here started to change their minds,” he said. “It comes a little closer to home when you see his parents.”
Benovitz was instrumental in arranging a different sort of encounter for the kollel campers earlier that week. In his overall capacity as a coordinator for several NCSY summer programs in Israel, he scheduled three days of interaction between the kollel boys and participants in a new NCSY camp, Jerusalem Journeys Ambassadors.
The program aims to provide 47 North American public high school students with tools to advocate for Israel on college campuses. From June 30 to Aug. 3, the students – including two from Bergen County – are meeting with Israeli officials and visiting key locations to gain an understanding of current and ongoing struggles in the Jewish homeland.
“We wanted them to see the land in a real and intense way,” said Benovitz. “We decided there was one more thing they needed: competency and literacy in basic Jewish texts and ideas. The place to do that was at kollel and Michlelet,” the parallel NCSY summer camp for girls.
Benovitz said the integration of public school students and yeshiva students was mutually beneficial. “Both sides have prejudices and assumptions,” he said. “Learning and playing ball together was an extraordinary experience.”
Program Director Rabbi Ben Zion Goldfischer, formerly of West Orange, said the Ambassadors track is a new offering in NCSY’s Jerusalem Journeys programs for public high school students.
“The kids are growing tremendously,” said Goldfischer. “I’ve been doing Jerusalem Journeys for 13 years but I’ve never been as inspired as this year.”
Aaron Karp, an incoming senior at Teaneck High School, said the NCSY program “is the opportunity of a lifetime, and it’s been amazing. I’m so tired because we’re doing so much every day.” The camp’s final week was to be devoted to running a day camp for children from Sderot.
International Director of NCSY Rabbi Steven Burg said the Jerusalem Ambassadors had audiences with the former chief of staff for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; members of the Israeli Knesset; chief rabbis; generals of the Israeli Defense Forces; members of an Israeli emergency response team; and the parents of a navy commando involved in the recent controversial flotilla from Turkey. They also had training with Dale Carnegie professionals.
“Not a day goes by that our teens are not questioned about why Israel is so unfair to the Palestinians,” said Burg. “We need to arm them with the historical facts of Israel and the spiritual resolve to be committed to the land of Israel.”
Aaron said one highlight was an Israel advocacy seminar with Neil Lazarus, who trains Israeli diplomats and army spokesmen. “When I get to college, unfortunately I’m going to be facing people who are not so pro-Israel and this gives me a basis to start from,” said Aaron, whose family belongs to the Jewish Center of Teaneck. “I don’t know all the facts, but I know that I need to do the research to explain to people that the things they hear are not true.”
When the Jerusalem Ambassadors – including Philip Katz of Upper Saddle River, a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School – return to America, they will be expected to develop and implement Israel advocacy programs at their schools.