By Rav Mordechai Burg
“The Shul near my house is under construction. The next Shul is a 45-minute drive away. After this summer I just can’t imagine not going to Shul. I know you’re not supposed to drive on Shabbos but is there any way around this? It just won’t be Shabbos without being in Shul.”
“How can I find the courage to stand up to the daily antisemitism that I face in school? I’ve always wanted to say something; after this summer I feel like I have to say something.”
“My parents are divorced. My mom is more supportive of my Jewish journey than my father.. How can I retain what I have gained this summer? I have been keeping Shabbos all summer and I don’t want to stop, but am nervous about my father’s lack of support. What can I do to make sure I stay strong?”
These are some of the questions I fielded at a recent NCSY TJJ Shabbaton in Yerushalayim. Each one of these questions is heartbreaking in its own way, but all point to the incredible journey these teens are on. TJJ is a four-week touring experience in Israel for public school students. Many advisors on the program are TJJ alumni themselves. Rabbi Avi Warman, director of TJJ Southern (the trip I joined), provided the teens an incredible experience. You can see it on their faces. The tagline of NCSY Summer is “Best. Summer. Ever.” Ask these NCSY’ers and they will tell you that this was unequivocally their best summer ever. As Mashpia of NCSY Summer, my responsibility for that Shabbos was to inspire the teens. I walked away from that Shabbos far more inspired by these teens than they were by me. And that very inspiration is why I am writing this article.
Recently there has been chatter about kiruv and communal priorities. Should we continue to invest in people outside of our insular circles? Some contend that a dollar spent on a teenager in our Yeshiva day school system will have a far greater impact than on a teenager who attends public school. Would our incredibly talented Kiruv professionals not have a greater impact on people within our community, which is also very much in need of inspiration, than outside of it?
I must admit to a personal bias in answering these questions. I am privileged to come from a wonderful family where both of my parents are Baalei Teshuva. Most of my relatives are not observant and the intermarriage rate in our family is sadly no different than others. If those who contend that we should deploy our resources within our own communities had their way, my parents would not have had the resources necessary to become observant Jews. I would not be writing this article. Bias aside, they are making a fundamental mistake.
Imagine for a moment that chas v’shalom a member of your family was critically ill. The chances of survival are slim. Despite the long odds, would you not do everything in your power to save this person’s life? To give this person the very best care available despite any prohibitive costs? I imagine you would spend the bulk of your time with this person, even at the expense of other members of your family. This is what we do in times of crisis. Now imagine someone came to you and said that the time and resources you are spending would be better invested in a healthy family member, as they can do more with your time and money throughout their lifetimes. We have a hard time even conjuring up such a scenario; no one would make such a cruel suggestion. Families do not make calculations like these. When a crisis hits we do everything we can to support those who are in trouble. We deploy every available resource no matter the cost. We shower them with love. To do any less would be to betray the very notion of what family means.
Jews are, above all else, a family. At Matan Torah we became a nation, yet fundamentally we remain the children of Avraham Avinu. The familial nature of Judaism has given rise to the exceptional chesed that one finds in our community. From HASC to Misaskim to Bonei Olam to Bikur Cholim to Hatzalah to Tomchei Shabbos and well beyond, we have chesed organizations for every need. We make no calculations other than a family member needs us, so we do whatever we can to support them. To do otherwise would be to betray the very notion of family.
The Jewish Nation is diverse. Some are more observant and some are less so. The Torah is Morasha Kehilas Yaakov, it is an inheritance for every single Jew, and every Jew should be made aware that they have a right to this beautiful inheritance. It is a family responsibility. It is our responsibility.
The chances of these young men and women becoming observant are slim. I would argue that ‘observance’ is not the goal of kiruv, but that is beyond the point of this article. These are members of our family who deserve our love and support. To make calculations about the time and resources we spend on our unaffiliated brothers and sisters is a betrayal of our family. It speaks to a complete lack of understanding of the Jewish Nation. We are one soul with one body. I have a hard time imagining that Hashem has nachas from these calculations. I grew up on the idea that every Jew is a letter in a Sefer Torah and that if even one letter is missing the Torah is pasul. Are we really ready to pasul this sefer Torah? To focus only on letters that are more clearly defined and vibrant? Are we really ready to amputate these limbs of our own body?
A final word about my Shabbos with TJJ. To the woman who asked me about keeping Shabbos when she didn’t have her father’s support or Jewish friends, I didn’t know how to respond. What could I possibly say to someone who so badly wanted to keep Shabbos but simply didn’t have the infrastructure? I asked her if her father would agree for her to light Shabbos candles. She said he would. I asked her if once a month she would go to an NCSY advisor’s house for Shabbos. She said she could. I asked the advisors in the audience if they would host her for Shabbos and every hand shot up. I asked this girl if she would be interested in learning once a week on the phone. She said “absolutely”. Again every advisor rushed to offer. I asked her if she could commit to keeping a couple of hours of Shabbos each week. She agreed. I asked her how she would feel if in a year from now she returned to TJJ having lit Shabbos candles every week, learned Torah every week, and kept a full Shabbos once a month and a couple of hours every week. She broke down crying, and between her tears, she said it would feel wonderful. At that point, a group of girls was crying with her and hugging her so I excused myself. With tears in my eyes, I went over to Rabbi Warman to say goodbye. I had another TJJ program to attend. Rabbi Warman was talking to another NCSY’er; he had tears in his eyes too. I don’t know what they were talking about, but I knew the feeling. It is the honored feeling of accompanying someone on a special journey. It is crying with them in their pain and rejoicing with them in their celebrations. It is not about percentages nor is it about success and failure. It is about family and spending time with the people we love.
At the end of June, I flew to Florida for a close talmid’s wedding. Both Chasan and Kallah were alumni of TJJ Southern. Both had become observant. They’re now living in Sanhedria Murchevet, where they will be learning in Kollel. Rabbi Warman received bracha achrita. The chasuna took place one day before Rabbi Warman was leaving to Israel for the summer. He turned to me and said, “This is exactly the inspiration I need before I start this year’s program.” I knew what he meant. Two of his closest family members had just begun their own family. With that feeling in his heart, he was ready to go meet new members of his family and introduce them to their rightful inheritance.
Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com