Stephanie, Linit, and Dennis have plenty of Jewish classmates at Fair Lawn High School. But when they joined more than 400 other public-high-school students at last week’s Yarchei Kallah Torah study convention run by NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, they made new Jewish friends from across North and South America.
“I loved meeting people from all over,” Dennis said. “It opened a whole new world.”
His horizon-broadening experience began last summer when he was a camper in an NCSY summer program called the Jerusalem Journey. TJJ, as it is called, is geared to members of NCSY’s network of more than 200 Jewish Student Union culture clubs on public-school campuses.
“When I went to TJJ I met people from different parts of the world, and here at my first Yarchei Kallah I met people from Chile and Argentina,” Dennis said. “When you go to public school, you don’t realize how many other Jewish kids there are. We are all from public school and we don’t know Torah as well, so we’re all trying to learn and become friends.
“I will hang out with some of these people next week, and then we’ll hang out on social media.”
The annual five-day retreat, held this year at Ocean Place Resort in Long Branch, offers a December vacation alternative for teens. It includes group study, one-on-one learning, and late-night discussions with teachers, advisors, and peers, as well as lots of communal singing and festivity over Shabbat.
The program also included inspirational talks from Hillel Fuld, an American-born Israeli high-tech guru whose brother, Ari, was murdered in a terrorist attack in September; and from British singer-songwriter Alex Clare, who told his story about his return to Judaism.
NCSY requested that the Jewish Standard use only the first names of the local participants interviewed for this article in order to respect their privacy.
Stephanie and Linit, both Fair Lawn High School seniors, became involved in NCSY in 10th grade and attended their first Yarchei Kallah in December 2017.
“Last year it was absolutely incredible,” Stephanie said. “I knew if I went again this year I could grow in my knowledge and bring back what I learned to other people. For me, the all-time highlights were the singing and the ‘mishmar’ learning groups. We had a choice of mishmar sessions to attend and I chose the one about things we are obligated to learn and bring into our lives.”
Linit said that Yarchei Kallah “fuels my upcoming year and helps me get into the correct mindset for where I want to be in my Judaism. And it helps me to motivate others to do the same thing.”
Linit said she enjoyed rekindling friendships she made last summer at TJJ, and she was inspired by the event’s overall theme of the personal story of the biblical leader Moshe — Moses — and how each person can create his or her own story. She also got a lot out of a session on “the strategy of sensitivity, where we learned ways to deal with situations our peers or family members may be going through,” she said.
When school is back in session, Linit plans to start attending weekly educational sessions offered at “Torah High,” the nickname of the Jewish Student Union club at Fair Lawn High School.
Eitan, 16, a student at Teaneck High School, was impressed by the teaching style of Teaneck native Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, the managing director of the Israel-based International NCSY.
“I have mild ADD, and I’ve never seen such a calm yet energetic learning environment,” Eitan said. “At the beginning of our class about Moshe and what it means to be a leader, Rabbi Benovitz asked us to take off our shoes and hand our phones to someone else. He said we’d be more connected to our learning if our feet were connected to the ground.
“And it worked.”
Eitan has been involved in NCSY locally for three years. “I’ve been going to Thursday ‘Latte and Learning’ sessions and to Friday night oneg Shabbat programs,” he said. “Yarchei Kallah is a different ballgame — five days of gaining personal relationships with the advisors and rabbis. The energy is incomparable.
“I’ve been never been so happy to be so exhausted.”
New Jersey NCSY Metro West adviser Barak Bader, a student at Yeshiva University, said this year’s Yarchei Kallah attracted the largest-ever contingent of New Jersey NCSY members. There were more than 40.
“You see all these kids coming together with international peers and realizing they are not alone,” Mr. Bader said.
The themed focus on Moses, he added, conveyed the message that the man who led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage and brought them the Torah at Mount Sinai — accomplished with much personal and communal hardship — “didn’t just look at his situation but took action and took a stand for what he believed in and changed the world.
“These teens all have that ability to change lives and change themselves.”
Mr. Bader emphasized that Yarchei Kallah is not meant as a one-off event. “It was a way for the advisors to become closer with the teens and encourage them to be involved in JSU clubs in their schools,” he said. “I’m planning to make sure they know it’s not just a single moment of inspiration. People care about them.”