Thursday, May 23, 2024

Heroes Of Summer

We have all heard of Oorah and are most familiar with its jingles and mascot. We see their ads, but we have to admit that we really aren't all that familiar with what they do. For the past couple of years, Oorah has asked me to spend a Shabbos in The Zone, their summer camp for kids. To tell you the truth, it didn't really interest me. What am I going to do in a camp overrun with public school kids? Besides, they probably have Fiveishes posted at every corner and their jingles are likely playing everywhere. What type of Shabbos could it be? Shabbos Nachamu I went to see for myself what goes on in that camp. And, once again, I drank the Kool-Aid. What a nechomah it was.

As Kabbolas Shabbos began, the energetic head counselor announced that those present were about to experience the best Kabbolas Shabbos in their lives. For most of the hundreds present, it wasn’t a hard bar to conquer. For the overwhelming majority of the campers, if they wouldn’t be in that camp, they would not be experiencing Shabbos.


But even the counselors, yeshiva bochurim who volunteer their bein hazemanim to make a difference in the lives of Jewish children, and guests at the camp were in for an experience like no other. It was breathtaking to watch how those very same public school kids, who were new to Shabbos and to davening and so much else, were mekabeil Shabbos that night. Slowly, but surely, the bais medrash came to life. We watched children trying mightily to daven. Their fingers, which would otherwise be typing into Facebook or flipping channels on a TV remote, pointed to the letters in their siddurim, as they tried valiantly to sing the praises of Hashem and His Shabbos.


During Lecho Dodi, everyone was on their feet, overcome with joy, singing together the tunes of simcha and deveikus, and then breaking out in dance around the bais medrash. Campers, counselors, rabbonim and guests joined hands in happiness. Those who wonder what Oorah does should have been in that room and felt the energy and the kedushah. They would have experienced the best Kabbolas Shabbos in their life.


It was amazing to be there and speak to the campers. They shared their stories, relating how far they have come and how far they have to go. The kid from PS 41 was as sweet as can be. You look at his Yiddishe ponim and your heart breaks knowing where he came from and where he is headed unless the yeshivaleit of Oorah are able to convince his parents to send him to a yeshiva.


You ask a kid what he likes best about camp and he says, “Shabbat. I never knew what it was. It’s awesome.”


It breaks your heart, but it also gladdens it, for there is a fighting chance to save these kids thanks to the dedicated staff and their hatzolah work.


You meet a boy who came to camp four years ago as a public school kid and today looks like any other ben Torah, and he tells you with the broadest smile you’ve ever seen that he is in the rosh yeshiva’s shiur. Oorah’s staff convinced his parents to send him to yeshiva and paid the tuition, as they helped him rise to the challenge, providing all types of chizuk along the way.


One of the rabbeim in the camp was searching high and low for his ArtScroll Brachos Gemoros, to no avail. He needed them for his advanced class. Hours later, he found them. Three boys who had gone to the Siyum Hashas decided to begin studying Talmud. But they can’t read Hebrew, so they took the Gemoros and hid in a room where they wouldn’t be disturbed, and they clawed their way through the first page of the masechta.


Is that not a nechomah to a nation badly in need of one?

This rebbi then said that there had been an internal debate regarding whether they should take the campers to the Siyum Hashas. What would they do there? They wouldn’t understand the speeches. They wouldn’t be able to sit still. What would they gain from being there?


“I was against them going,” he said. “I was wrong. I was very wrong. When I saw those kids working so hard to learn a blatt Gemorah, all because they were at the Siyum, I was overcome. Oh, how wrong I was.”


The kids in camp are real, and as they are introduced to Yiddishkeit, it becomes so real to them that their emunah peshutah leaves an observer awestruck.


A young camper was spotted in shul in the middle of a nice sunny day. The staff member who found him asked him why he was there, rather than outside, with everyone else. The camper told him that his whole life he dreamed of riding a horse, but he was never able to. When he came to the camp, he was so excited to see twelve horses and to hear that he would get to ride a horse and have his dream fulfilled. He was about to get his chance in a few minutes, along with the rest of his bunk, but along with his excitement about saddling up on the back of a horse, he was scared and afraid. He had just started learning Alef-Bais in camp, so he thought that it might help if he went to the shul and read to G-d the few letters that he knew. That would make G-d happy and he wouldn’t fall off his horse.


These are the type of Jewish kids being rescued from a life of spiritual oblivion.


The camp began this year on a Friday. One of the campers, who had just gone through the first Shabbos experience of his life, thought when Sunday came along that what he saw the day before was the way that religious Jews conduct themselves all seven days of the week, with no melochah, no swimming, no driving, and with a lengthy davening. How was he to know any different?


There was another boy who wondered after davening Friday night why the shofar wasn’t blown.


Boys like these are introduced to the beauty of the Torah way of life and they like what they see.


A boy in the camp posed a shailah, asking if it is permissible to make Kiddush on soda. He explained that his parents are not religious and that he didn’t think he could start keeping Shabbos just yet. But he wanted to keep something. Camp lit a spark inside of him and he wanted to keep it flickering. He wants to make Kiddush at home every Shabbos, but there’s no grape juice in his house, so he wants to know if he can make Kiddush on soda and thus recall what Shabbos was like in camp. He wants to have some kedushah in his life.


A real boy, a real question, a real Yid, who will one day learn Torah and be shomer Shabbos thanks to Oorah and the yeshiva bochurim and kollel yungeleit who gave up their summer to show him and others what Shabbos is.


I was soaking it all in and was amazed by the hundreds of boys who were being exposed to Yiddishkeit and given a fighting chance to grow up frum. I reflected on the zechus of the people of Oorah and those who support them in what they do.


As if reading my mind, the brilliant lawyer, Ron Coleman, who was there too, approached me and opened my eyes.


“You look inspired,” he said.


“How can I not be?” I responded.

“You’re missing the best part,” he said. “You are probably thinking about the campers and so impressed by the change that can come over them. But there’s an equally large story here that you are probably missing. It gets much less recognition. Look at the accomplishments of the counselors, basically regular yeshiva bochurim from regular yeshivos.”


He’s right. Typical yeshiva bochurim, who spend the entire year learning, gave away their summer break to volunteer in The Zone. Only two people out of the 200 who work there — not including maintenance staff – were paid for their work. But you couldn’t tell. They were so motivated and so focused on what they were doing, it was awe-inspiring. There was such pride in what they were doing, and joy and simcha were everywhere. They were engaged in a historic mission and they felt it.


They were the embodiment of the posuk which states, “Veheishiv leiv avos al bonim, veleiv bonim al avosom,” and they felt it.


I saw how our own yeshiva bochurim are tofeiach al menas lehatfiach. They were so saturated with chiyus at the end of the zeman as to be able to give it over to others who don’t have the opportunities they do. The success of the young people who spent their summer learning and teaching in shuls, camps and programs is testimony to the job our yeshivos and schools are doing. It gives everyone hope for a better tomorrow. It shows that our youth have the desire to grow, flourish, accomplish and make a difference.

There is a look on the faces of the campers there that tells you that they’re getting it too. These kids exchange conventional summertime fun for a great time coupled with a spiritual component. With determination, focus and stamina, and ever-present smiles on their faces, they forge ahead. The month or two that they spend at The Zone will enrich their lives in ways they never fathomed. The people at Oorah realize that, and they know what they’re undertaking. It’s not just two months, but a commitment to helping these youngsters change their lives. It will mean paying their yeshiva tuition should they succeed in convincing them to go to yeshiva. It means Shabbos invitations, providing matzos and dalet minim, and staying in touch every week. Undaunted, the good folks at Oorah say, “Bring it on.” And by the way, though I didn’t get to visit it, eight miles from the camp for boys, Oorah runs a similar camp for girls with 300 staff members and 600 campers over both trips.


The Jewish heart, which was overwhelmed with anguish during The Three Weeks and then burst into joy with the consoling words of nechomah, is now confronted with the tremor of Elul.


The quiet summer period leads straight into the most serious, spiritual time of year, when we prepare to usher in the season of awe.


Maybe our experiences and encounters when we’re out of our usual dalet amos are meant to give us inspiration and food for thought in our own Elul preparations.


The more we travel, the more we are exposed to Yiddishe neshamos who are not as fortunate as we are. Some trips involve scenic mountains or pristine lakes, but somebein hazemanim trips feature beautiful scenery of a different sort.


Perhaps the summer weeks are a perfect hakdomah, as I learned at Oorah’s camp.


The weeks of bein hazemanim are a fitting preparation for the din of Elul, for these selfless Yidden show us just how much we have to be proud of and how many zechuyos we have. Seeing the pride and passion that the teenagers who go out on Seed programs possess is, by extension, a limud zechus on their parents, yeshivos and schools. This summer, Project Seed was in 130 locations, staffed by 60 couples, 400 bochurim, and, in separate locations, 160 girls.


There are also rabbeim who, rather than enjoy their much anticipated break through totally disconnecting from their talmidim, chose to spend that time with the same boys they teach all year. This is indicative of the richness and vibrancy of the relationship between one who teaches Torah and histalmidim. We’re talking of people like Rav Akiva Grosnas of Mesivta Beis Shraga, who took a group of histalmidim to his native South Africa to be mechazeik the community there during the summer weeks. We’re talking about people like Rav Meir Krawiec of the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg, who established a network of several summer programs, where maggidei shiur travel all across North America along with their belovedtalmidim to keep on learning.


These people and their programs reveal the beauty of our olam hayeshivos.


Some speak with longing about the dacha of the pre-war yeshiva world and the glory of the bein hazemanim when roshei yeshiva, rabbonim and yeshivos from disparate areas of Lithuania and Poland united in resort areas in a mass of ris’cha de’oraisah. Yet, today’s world, where bochurim willingly leave behind comforts and conveniences to share their learning with others, gives us reason to hold our heads high.


And it may help us understand how this period is a hakdomah to Chodesh Elul.


TheChofetz Chaim was once approached by two bochurim who wanted to join his yeshiva in Radin. There was no space for them in the yeshiva, so they had to be turned away. But the Chofetz Chaim, being the Chofetz Chaim, felt bad for them and engaged them in conversation to pacify them, so that they wouldn’t leave with negative feelings. Upon asking them about their families and backgrounds, he learned that they were descendants of the Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.


The Chofetz Chaim called over his son-in-law, who ran his yeshiva, and asked him to find room for the two boys. He explained that Chodesh Tishrei was soon approaching and he wanted the zechus of davening with these two einiklach of sangerion shel Yisroel, the great advocate of all Jews, on the yemei hadin.


As we enter Chodesh Elul, we have the zechus of having these dedicated young men and women – the young people who went out on Seed, the ones who traveled around the country learning Torah with other Jews, the ones who traveled to foreign countries doing the same thing, the counselors at Oorah and Camp Simcha and so many other places – and others like them, among us.


Throughout Elul, we recite the words of Dovid Hamelech proclaiming our faiththat we have nothing to fear – “lo ira.” We have faith because even as we walk in the valley of death, Hashem is with us. We march into Elul with the memory of the many tens of thousands of people around the world who participated in the various Siyumei Hashas that took place everywhere, proclaiming their dedication to learning Torah and respecting those who do. And even as we walk in the shadow of the darkness of golus, we gain security and faith from observing the young people among us who have brought us much pride and accrued so many zechuyos over the past few weeks.


Those who spent their time off re-bonding with their families have nothing to be ashamed of either. The family is the foundation of Jewish life, and for us to remain strong, we need healthy family relationships. The legions of boys and girls who eschew the many prevalent enticements and return to the bais medrash and classroom rejuvenated provide comfort as we worry about our future. They keep alive the chain and the promise of “netzach Yisroel lo yishakeir.”


Let them know we are proud of them and support them.


Ah gutten chodesh.



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