NCSY and HAFTR Teens Travel to Germany to Create Pioneer Outreach Organization

01 Apr 2008


A Special Report from Long Island NCSY

There is a memorial on one block in East Berlin where there are elevated stones with names on them. Many of these stones represent individuals, some of them families, and then there are those which represent synagogues and their constituencies. The constant change in elevation makes it physically difficult to walk down that block in East Berlin; what the stones represent makes it spiritually challenging to walk anywhere in Germany. For a ten-day period, 18 Long Island NCSYers chose to walk in Germany, recognizing the physical and spiritual challenges that such a place represents. This challenge was epitomized on our group’s experience spanning Taanit Esther through Purim and the subsequent Shabbat.

On the Thursday of Taanit Esther (the Fast of Esther), our group, half of us from NCSY and HAFTR (Long Island), and half from Lauder Am Echad of Germany, spent the day commemorating the horrors of the Shoah just 60 years before in Berlin.

The NCSY Leadership Fellows, consisting of 15 outstanding students from HAFTR, ran a seminar for 15 of their public school counterparts in Germany. It was under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone and NCSY that these students embraced the opportunity and obligation to support their fellow Jews regardless of where they live.

One of the numerous memorials set up in Berlin is a sidewalk with commemorative stones (really tombstones), not of people but of shuls. These tombstones represented not only the destruction of the physical buildings but the spiritual destruction of the Jewish people. It was here that we paid careful attention to the tombstone of the Shul Bat Tzion, for although the German government decided to commemorate the destruction and obliteration of Bat Tzion sixty years ago, we celebrated Purim and Shabbat there.

Dani Salig, one of the seminar participants commented, “I’ve never danced with so much purpose at a Chagiga before.” Sammy Rubin remarked,“I felt like we weren’t dancing just for ourselves and the other seminar participants but for three generations of Jews who did not have this opportunity”.

Although all of the participants were extremely wary about traveling to Germany from both a physical and spiritual point of view, once there they realized that their time was short and that there was so much work to do. There are over 125,000 Jews currently living in Germany, most from the former Soviet Union, with minimal Torah knowledge and almost no infrastructure outside of welfare support. Rabbi Josh Spinner, as head of the Lauder Foundation, is committed to not let another 100,000 Jews be lost to our people.

It is especially poignant that this work is occurring in Germany. Rabbi Spinner reached out to Rabbi Lightstone to form a strategic alliance with NCSY to help the continued outreach with an emphasis on teens and early collegiates. Rabbi Spinner commented that no one in the world is better at outreach for teens then NCSY, and the recent success of Long Island NCSY and its Yeshiva Day School missions to New Orleans and elsewhere made working with Long Island NCSY and Rabbi Lightstone a natural fit. He went on to say that the teens that NCSY brought from HAFTR were wonderful role models for German teens and the impact they made will be long lasting in helping develop an effective and successful outreach organization.

A Pledge from the OU

This alliance goes hand in hand with the pledge made to the German community by the OU a year-and-a-half ago. Rabbi Steven Burg, NCSY International Director, explained, “OU President Stephen J. Savitsky and I traveled to Germany to meet with the local leaders. We saw that the German community was facing assimilation and intermarriage challenges and we pledged to assist them any way we could.”

“I am pleased to know that Jewish teens in Germany are connecting with their heritage and we are happy to be a part of making this happen,” he said.

To strengthen and further assist outreach efforts in Germany, NCSY will take a teen group to Germany this summer on a JOLT (Jewish Overseas Leadership Training) Central Europe trip. It will begin in Israel with an inspirational journey of exploration and touring the Jewish homeland. Following which, teens will journey to Berlin, Leipzig, and Hamburg where they will learn about Jewish leadership, Jewish history on German soil, the Holocaust and celebrate with the revived community. In the Swiss Alps, they will reside on picturesque campsites to help create educational programs that will connect them with Jewish children from across Eastern Europe. This trip is open to boys and girls, grades 10 through 12.

The JOLT trip will, of course, build on the efforts of the March seminar. These consisted of bonding with the Central European Jews, basic Torah study, hands-on chesed such as decorating the Brandenberg social hall for Purim, making a Shabbaton for the community of Leipzig, enhancing and creating Purim seudas throughout Berlin, as well as most importantly, working with our German Jewish counterparts to address their concerns from the physical to the spiritual and every outreach challenge they have.

Perhaps the highlight of the program was Yuri changing his name to Shlomo Uriel. The name that he chose, Shlomo, was symbolic of the wisdom that he had attained at the seminar both through the general shiurim as well as the individual one-on-one learning opportunities that the NCSY group provided him. Uriel was chosen to indicate his commitment to consistently and constantly move forward, as Uriel represents the malach (angel) that leads our way.

Another one of the moments where we had vindication was when we traveled to Brandenberg, and even though there are over 11,000 Jews in the state of Brandenberg there aren’t any shuls remaining and there are no rabbis servicing the state. However, we as a group went (with police escort in addition to our regular security personnel) to the Jewish community center, a building still heated with coal, and with words of Torah, songs of joy and feelings of inspiration we were able to give hope and purpose not only to the Jews of Brandenberg who joined us but to our own group.

Sarit Friedman, a senior at HAFTR and an NCSY participant, summed up the seminar so eloquently when she told the whole group, “We came all the way to Germany to educate, motivate and to inspire, and I think we were probably successful in achieving those goals. However, we came all the way to Germany and we were educated, we became more motivated and we are now more inspired. We learned so much from the Jews who choose to remain Jews against all odds both historical and present.”

“We carry with us not only the joy and satisfaction from a life changing seminar but also a life changing sense of responsibility,” she said. “Responsibility to be grateful for everything that we have been given and the Torah lifestyle we have been educated in. For HAFTR, for providing us with the opportunity to grow as individuals as well as for actively believing in and supporting this wonderful program. Finally, NCSY for having the fortitude to make us examine what level of commitment we have to the people outside of our immediate circle and for teaching us that we can change the Jewish world one teenager at a time.”