This week, 313 public school teenagers from all over the United States and Canada are skipping the ski slopes and the Florida sun. Instead, they are spending part of their Christmas and New Year’s vacation learning Torah as part of NCSY’s annual Yarchei Kallah program. To cap-off the inspirational week, all the participants and staff members will be spending Shabbat in the welcoming Modern Orthodox community of Keter Torah in Teaneck, NJ. “Yarchei Kallah is the premier Torah learning experience for Jewish public high school teens in the world,” explained Rabbi Micah Greenland, newly appointed international director of NCSY.
Rabbi Greenland attended the program as a public school student from Rochester, New York. “It opened my eyes to how exhilarating and invigorating Torah learning could be,” he added. “It played a part in my decision to invest in my Torah studies on a more serious level.”
NCSY is the international youth organization of the Orthodox Union. During the program, teens spend Tuesday until Friday at the Stamford Hilton learning with NCSY staff members and educators in a variety of interactive sessions. Topics range from Jewish medical ethics to the philosophy of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the development of halakha. This year’s program will be focused on various failures related in Sefer Bereishit and what teens can learn from those failures.
“The program is about taking ownership of your Jewish story and having kids develop their own expertise and their own connection to specific areas of Jewish law, thought and history,” explained Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, NCSY’s director of education.
Explained Upstate New York teen Elisa Alweis, “As a public school student, it is pretty rare that I get to have such focused learning readily available…Seeing so many other teenagers engaged and interested in Judaism and expanding their knowledge, not because they have to, rather because they want to, is incredible…Yarchei Kallah is the flame that reignites my connection and keeps it burning.”
Part of the strength of the program, New Jersey NCSY Director Rabbi Yaakov Glasser maintains, stems from the Shabbat that the teens spend in Teaneck. “It’s an opportunity for students who are mostly from unaffiliated homes to be exposed to the vibrancy of one of the most dynamic Modern Orthodox communities in America,” he explained. “This is the type of modern community that these teens see themselves connecting to. This community balances the world of modernity with the values of Torah and exemplifies what it means to live in the world as a Torah-committed Jew.”
Rabbi Glasser has a favorite story from his time spent working in Yarchei Kallah. One year Yarchei Kallah coincided with Chanukah and one session was devoted to explaining the history of the holiday and how Jews pretended to play dreidel to avoid having the Greeks discover that they were actually learning Torah. One night after curfew, Rabbi Glasser heard noises from a small classroom in the hotel. He feared the worst, but when he opened the door he saw a group of teens learning from a sefer that the program had given out that day. When the teens saw Rabbi Glasser, they took out dreidels and began playing. Laughing, Rabbi Glasser let the teens continue learning long into the night.
by Michael Orbach