TABC Students Participate in Life-Changing Orthodox Union Relief Mission to Israel

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02 Jan 2024

 School Kicks Off First Teen OU Relief Israel Mission During the War

Among the numerous heroes eight Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) high school students met on a recent, life-changing Israel trip with OU Relief Missions, the patients at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan who suffered critical injuries made the greatest impression. Not because of the life-altering trauma they sustained, but because of their incredible strength and optimism. People like Amichai Schindler from Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on the Gaza border, whose hands were blown off by Hamas terrorists on Simchat Torah as he struggled to hold his family’s bomb shelter door closed.

Rabbi Ethan Katz and TABC students Dani Needle, Aryeh Eizikovitz, Benny Zelig, Eytan Kirschenbaum, Aron Major, Josh Schneider and Jonah Miller discuss what it means to serve in the IDF

Amichai and his wife Avital told 11th and 12th graders Yonatan Brothman, Jonah Miller, Aron Major, Benny Zelig, Aryeh Eizikovitz, Eytan Kirschenbaum, Dani Needle and Josh Schneider that they don’t focus on what they’ve lost, but rather on what they have — their lives, their land and their ability to serve Hashem. Amichai’s only challenge now, he maintained, is to determine his new purpose in life.

Then there were the numerous chayalim at Tel Hashomer who had lost their legs in battle.

“On behalf of the teens, I asked these soldiers if they would do it all over again,” says Director of OU Relief Missions Rabbi Ethan Katz, who co-organized the trip and accompanied the boys along with TABC Associate Principal Rabbi Steven Finkelstein. “Not only did they say they would absolutely do it again; they encouraged the boys to make Aliyah and to join the army. Every person we met spoke about having no regrets. It really impacted the teens.”

L-R at Neve Ilan: Yonatan Brothman, Aryeh Eizikovitz, Jonah Miller, Dani Needle, Eytan Kirschenbaum, Aron Major, Josh Schneider and Benny Zelig ran a carnival for evacuees from Sderot

Despite briefing the students extensively about what they might expect to see and feel on the five-day December mission, both rabbis agree that no amount of advance preparation could have adequately prepared them for this experience.

“One of the things that was so powerful and may have helped the boys to cope with the hardship they witnessed was the lens through which those suffering from traumas recounted their stories with resolve and determination,” says Rabbi Finkelstein, who also runs a social work practice. 

“Every person we met, whether it was soldiers who lost limbs, or a bereaved mother who lost a son in battle, had this overall sense that they have a mission that is greater than themselves. The entire country just seems focused on what has to happen — whether it was a soldier guarding the border in East Jerusalem saying that he has to be there to defend everyone, or a family from Sderot who chooses to return to live there so the rest of the country will be safe, every life decision that these people are making is with a sense of purpose. The people who went through trauma aren’t allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with grief, and their courage pushed us to follow the tone they set.”

L-R, at Tzur Hadassah army base: TABC students Aryeh Eizikovitz and Yonatan Brothman, and Rabbi Steven Finkelstein make a barbecue in celebration of a couple’s Sheva Brachot

TABC was the first high school in North America to participate in an OU Relief Mission to Israel for teens, an initiative spearheaded by TABC Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Joshua Kahn, Executive Director Judah Rosenbaum and Rabbi Finkelstein. 

“As a school and as a community, we are all feeling the pull to be in Israel,” says Rabbi Finkelstein. “We really just wanted to be there at this time, even for just a few days. I couldn’t imagine that there would be anything more powerful for these Jewish teenagers than to feel the unity in Israel during this period, and they really experienced it.”

Having participated in past OU Relief Missions to Texas, New Orleans and Romania where they helped Jewish Ukrainian refugees, Rabbi Finkelstein says TABC approached Rabbi Katz and asked him to co-run the Israel mission because the school knew from experience that the OU would provide an excellent, meaningful and highly professional experience. 

The eight students from New Jersey and New York were selected to attend the school-subsidized mission because they have been actively involved in school-wide Israel relief efforts since Simchat Torah, including clothing packing, tzedakah drives and letter-writing campaigns.

“Once I got the call, there was no question that I would go,” says 12th grader Josh Schneider, of Staten Island, New York. “I think if you get an option to go to Israel, you have to say ‘yes’ immediately. For five days, we went from one activity to another. It was hard work, but we weren’t thinking about ourselves. We were thinking about what happened in Israel and how we could make an impact. We were also representing everybody from America and I thought about my friends who would also have loved this opportunity. I would do it one hundred times more. I wish I could have been there for a longer time.”

Eleventh grader Dani Needle, of Passaic, New Jersey, wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when he committed to attending the mission.

“I didn’t know what the environment and culture would be like in Israel,” he says. “It’s a crazy idea to think that everyone is running to a war zone just to help out. But once I was there, I felt, how can I not be here? Especially when you hear from soldiers who have lost limbs that they would do it over again.”

Twelfth grader Eytan Kirschenbaum of Bergenfield, New Jersey, has been sending a daily newsletter update to the student body about the situation in Israel since the start of the war. Prior to his departure, he had heard many sad stories which led him to believe that the mood in Israel was overwhelmingly somber.

“Once I got there and saw everything in person,” he says, “it was much more meaningful. Some of the sad stories were more inspiring, like the injured soldiers we met, who said they wouldn’t hesitate to serve the country again. I also found it safer in Israel, even though it’s wartime. In America, there are so many people against us, especially on social media. When you’re in Israel everyone’s on the same team. No one is going to approach you on the street and threaten you because you’re Jewish.”

Teaneck’s Aron Major is also in 12th grade, and felt similarly. 

“You could definitely tell that there is a war going, but people aren’t mourning the whole time,” he says. “Even though many are in pain, they are translating that pain to optimism. Everyone was very friendly to us and happy that we were there. It was a very unique trip — one we never experienced in our lifetime.”

The mission itinerary included packing boxes of food for needy families at a non-profit in Rishon Lezion; packing beef jerky for chayalim at an organization in Ramat Bet Shemesh; a stop at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv where they met hostages’ families and lit candles; a visit to the Gordon family in Jerusalem who were sitting shiva for their son Naftali who was killed in active duty; a meeting with Jen Airly whose son Binyamin was also killed in battle; preparing cucumber vines for new planting in a greenhouse; leading a Chanukah carnival for evacuees from the South at Neve Ilan; running a barbecue for a couple celebrating their Sheva Brachot at an army base in Tzur Hadassa; and making connections with hundreds of young evacuees from Sderot and Kfar Maimon at two Jerusalem hotels over Shabbat.

The contingent also brought 300 thermal shirts and protein bars for soldiers, as well as toys and games to distribute at the hotels, which they purchased with funds collected from TABC tzedakah drives. 

Now back in the states, the boys are processing what they experienced with teachers and peers. Some have spoken about the mission in their respective classes and all will be sharing stories at a school-wide assembly. 

“The most important lesson I took home from the trip,” says Aron Major, “Is that no matter what type of background you have, as Jews we always come together during tragedies, and at the end of the day, we’re stronger together.”

The teens, and all of the TABC community, remain committed to aiding Israel moving forward. 

“These eight students are now charged with continuing letter-writing campaigns and initiating new tzedakah drives — whatever really needs to be done and whatever we can do from here,” says Rabbi Finkelstein. “They are creating a plan to start work on different projects.”

Reflecting on the mission, Rabbi Katz says it was highly successful. 

“It was the most moving experience for these students,” he says. “The kids believe that their entire lives have been changed. They were wowed by every aspect. As difficult as many parts were, the boys stepped up to the plate.”

For Rabbi Finkelstein, two particular incidents highlight the teens’ engagement and exemplify the extent to which they rose to the occasion: 

“We were at a falafel restaurant in Modiin for lunch. A sign said that chayalim and security forces members eat for free, and the restaurant will match donations of anyone who sponsors a falafel. The boys eagerly pooled as much of their money as they could to support the endeavor.”

He is equally proud of the students’ unique request on Motzei Shabbat ahead of their flight home. 

“After spending hours at a hotel on Shabbat engaging with children and teens — much longer than we had originally anticipated to stay — I had planned to take the boys out for a final dinner before we went to the airport,” recounts Rabbi Finkelstein. “As we were about to leave, they said they still had a bunch of toys and games that they hadn’t yet distributed, and asked if we could skip the dinner and return to the hotel to hand them out. They were able to move past themselves, and most importantly, to realize and appreciate the power they have, even in some small way, to impact the lives around them.”

Dani Needle says that he and his friends felt that returning to the hotel was the most appropriate way to end the trip. 

“When we left, we felt bad, because our job wasn’t done yet,” he says. “There are still kids at the hotel who need someone to play with… I now understand the degree to which everyone there needed, and still needs, our help. Even though we’re back here, we still feel like we’re in Israel right now. Part of us is still there. To have had that opportunity was really amazing.”