In the Stamford Hilton’s ballroom — now transformed into a rather crowded shul — NCSY advisor Ayelet Roller led a discussion about the story of the Tower of Babel. Why, she asked, did Hashem, in the words of the parsha, “come down” to the people building the tower?
The seven teens who surrounded her tossed around various answers, until Roller, 20, a junior at Brooklyn College, gently guided them to what she thought was a possible answer, a point she extrapolated from her own experience as a counselor on NCSY’s The Jerusalem Journey program. It had to do with refraining from judging others.
“Instead of focusing on the negative, just be open-minded to the people around you,” Roller told the public school students listening to her.
Across the auditorium, another advisor, Josh Karon, a student at Yeshiva University, whose two younger brothers were participating at Yarchei Kallah, posed a startling question to the teens gathered around him: Which generation was worse: the generation that drowned in the flood or the generation that built the tower? One teen, dressed in a long-sleeve hooded t-shirt and black low-top Nikes, explained his argument using a midrash he’d just learned, carefully pronouncing an Aramaic term for less than a cent.
These were the bustling sights and sounds of NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah program. Yarchei Kallah takes teens from all across North America and provides them with intense and fun yeshiva-style learning for a week during the public school break between Christmas and New Year. This year marked the largest Yarchei Kallah to date with 313 dedicated NCSYers learning from some of the best advisors and educators NCSY has to offer.
And true to form, Yarchei Kallah was anything but quiet. In the corner of another auditorium, a group of boys relearned how to put on tefillin that they hadn’t worn since their bar-mitzvahs, and Marc Fein, Upstate Regional director and one of the organizers of Yarchei Kallah, hustled NCSY staff and participants alike to their next session. “Dovid,” Fein told one advisor, “you’re giving shiur in two minutes. You should probably go there.”
This year the program also had a focus on what it called ‘Mini-Masters,’ where participants were able to attend several lectures on a single topic.
“The teens appreciated the opportunity to focus on substantive topics that were relevant to their lives,” Fein explained. “They come out feeling a real ownership of the ideas.”
Debbi Stone, associate director of education for NCSY and a Yarchei Kallah organizer, led a wide-ranging Mini-Masters course on Holocaust Theology that veered from the Rambam’s conception of God to watching scenes from Elie Wiesel’s God on Trial.
“The teens were inquisitive, questioning and passionate in their responses and participation,” Stone said.
In addition, carrying on a new tradition launched last year, teens were able to begin their very own Jewish library. Free books made available to the teens through a sponsorship by Touro’s Landers Colleges included volumes of Artscroll Talmud and Tanach; books of mussar like Derech Hashem and Mesilat Ye’esharim; various works by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik’s Hagaddah.
For Sarita Weltman, a senior at Wolfson High School in Jacksonville, FL, the Yarchei Kallah experience was preparation for her next adventure. “I feel more excited to go to Israel next year and be in the same type of environment,” she said.
The week of learning concluded with a Shabbaton at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck, NJ.
“Yarchei Kallah exposes teens to a caliber and quality of Torah learning that they’re not exposed to regularly,” explained Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY. “It plants the seeds for a love of learning that can blossom over time.”
Scattered among the hundred of public school students were several yeshiva high school teens who were also basking in the spirituality.
Ari Zwiren, who attends a yeshiva high school, explained that going to Jewish schools his whole life, he “took for granted” the opportunities in front of him. “Yarchei Kallah is not just a place for public school teens to learn Torah, but a place for all teens to recognize they are lucky for what they have,” he said.