I have just started my eighth year as Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha. When I first began as Rabbi here, I set many goals for this community. Baruch Hashem, over the years our shul has made great strides; I am particularly proud of my congregation for meeting many of the goals and challenges that had been set, but nothing compares to the pride our community took in sending 16-year-old Aaron Kurtzman to the NCSY Kollel in Israel this past summer.
In New York, I imagine that it is no big deal for a boy to choose to go to Kollel for the summer, but here in Omaha, we have only one small community school that only goes to sixth grade and no Yeshiva or Jewish day school options past that. To produce a boy who has both the capability and the desire to attend an intensive learning summer program—the Harvard of Jewish summer programs—was indeed a great accomplishment for the Omaha Jewish community!
Have you ever heard of the stories of great gedolim who started out in small rural communities in prewar Poland? The story is always pretty much the same. As a young boy, he was recognized as having great potential by the people in the town so the town pooled their resources to buy a train ticket to send the boy off to Volozin or some other center of Torah. When the day of departure arrived, the entire town would come out in celebration, knowing that this boy was embarking on a journey that would ultimately bring great pride to everyone in the community.
That was kind of what our shul felt when we sent Aaron to Kollel. We have known Aaron since he was a little boy. We were there for his bar mitzvah. We heard him read every word of parshat ki tavo—with the dreaded tochecha! We see him in shul every week, davening, learning, and giving divrei Torah. Some members of the community anonymously gave money so that he could have an Israel summer experience. I presented Aaron with the option to go on TJJ, a program primarily for public school students that is mostly touring, or to NCSY Kollel, a program for yeshiva students that has a serious learning component. Without hesitation Aaron chose Kollel! This was a dream come true!
Aaron had the best summer of his life! He made friends from all over the country. In a short six weeks, his level of learning has broken into new stratospheres that he did not even know existed. For six weeks he was immersed in a world of Torah. He was introduced to Gemara learning and developed an understanding for learning Torah for its own sake. He encountered the great Rabbis from Yeshiva University and thinks that they are “mamash awesome!!” His madrichim and Kollel Rabbis were incredible role models and representatives of Torah, and he now has ongoing relationships with them. Most importantly, he quickly became familiar and comfortable with the Orthodox Yeshiva culture and language. Too often I see kids from Omaha who go off to college and try to connect with the Orthodox Jewish community in other cities. Although they have synagogue skills and even Judaic knowledge, they still feel culturally estranged from those who grew up in larger communities.
Thanks to NCSY Kollel, Aaron will never feel that way. He came back to Omaha passionate about learning, and he is inspiring others, including me. I have a weekly chevrusa with him, and I am so intensely proud of him. My next dream for Aaron—I hope that he chooses to go to learn in Yeshiva for a year after high school. Thanks to NCSY Kollel, Aaron will not be limited to a few yeshivot that cater to public school kids with limited backgrounds. He can have his pick of all of the top Yeshivot in Israel.
I can’t thank NCSY and the OU enough for providing this unmatched experience for Aaron. I plan to send Aaron back to Kollel this summer, and I hope that this is only the beginning of a wave of boys choosing Kollel and girls choosing michlelet for their summer experiences.
NCSY has already changed the course of history for the Omaha Jewish community. Thanks to the experiences offered and provided for our youth, these kids and the entire community have a very bright Jewish future.
NCSY offers many different opportunities for summer and year round Jewish youth experiences. To learn more about various summer programs at home and abroad, please visit: NCSY Summer 2012 – Jewish Teen Programs