Three Hundred Jewish Teens Choose to Spend Winter Break Learning With NCSY

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17 Jan 2024

Public School Students Drawn to Annual NCSY Retreat Centered on Torah, Judaism and Fun

While many of their peers spent winter break at exotic beaches and ski resorts, 300 Jewish teens from the U.S, Canada and Mexico attended a five-day retreat devoted to Torah study and religious growth run by NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union (OU).

Yarchei Kallah participants decorate sneakers for Israeli teens at the Power of One Fair

Aspire: NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah is a premier annual Torah learning experience for public school students in 9th through 12th grades. This year’s Yarchei Kallah in Stamford, Connecticut, included all the exhilarating components that NCSY weekends are renowned for — spirited singing, dancing and Shabbat onegs; captivating speakers and immersive Torah sessions; and opportunities to cultivate lifelong relationships with peers, advisors and educators.

“I chose to spend my break at Yarchei Kallah because it’s amazing to see so many teens from all different parts of the world coming together to learn Torah and hang out with their friends,” says Kaily Caicedo, a 12th grader at Westfield High School in New Jersey, who attended the retreat in 2022. “Yarchei Kallah enables me to connect with Jewish teens. I don’t often get that chance since I attend public school and don’t live in a very Jewish community. I get to talk to kids about Hashem and what Judaism means to us. It’s so inspiring to connect with teens my age on such a deep level. Seeing how many teens are on my same page really helped me to connect with my Judaism as well.”

NCSY Director of Innovation and Strategic Expansion Rabbi Jacob Bernstein says, “Yarchei Kallah is designed to deepen a teen’s connection to Torah and Judaism, strengthen their Jewish pride, and cultivate new friends for life.” Bernstein is also NCSY Summer Director of Next Step Israel Internships and co-directed this year’s event with Associate Regional Director of Central East NCSY and author Rabbi Menachem Tenenbaum.

The retreat also serves as both a regional and international reunion where participants experience the power and fun of NCSY on a larger scale, and take their Jewish practice to the next level.

Naomi Davis is in 11th grade at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and participated in Yarchei Kallah for the first time in 2022.

“After attending last year, I knew that I had to come back this winter,” she says. “There is no other way I would have liked to spend my break. I gained so much inspiration through learning, more pride in being Jewish, the feeling of unity and that I matter, and I gained so many new connections and relationships with old and new friends and advisors.”

Teens largely learn about Yarchei Kallah via their Jewish Student Union (JSU), NCSY’s network of public high school Jewish clubs, as well as their regional NCSY branches. About one third of this year’s participants have attended a previous NCSY summer program, like TJJ (The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey). Other attendees included NCSY alumni who are currently in college and 10 students who sit on NCSY’s National Board (NABO).

Participants convened at the Stamford Hilton on December 27 for five days of Torah study and workshops centered on The Power of One and an exploration of the Shema prayer. 

“The theme of unity was particularly significant in light of the events on October 7,” says Rabbi Bernstein. “We emphasized the idea of being part of one nation and one people. We studied each paragraph in Shema, which centers on Hashem’s oneness and our unique relationship with Him. Simultaneously, we also focused on the potential of one person to make a difference through one action, one mitzvah.”

Featured presenters included Rabbi Ari Bensoussan, Rabbi YY Jacobson, YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, Congregation Tiferes Yisroel’s Rabbi Menachem Goldberger of Baltimore, United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and NCSY alumnus Yoni Goldstein, Huntington National Bank Chairman Gary Torgow, and NCSY Director of Education and 18Forty podcast host Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin.

Senior educators from NCSY, Yeshiva University, Touro University and Israeli yeshivas and seminaries led a number of compelling sessions, and senior teens learned about inspiring gap year programs at an engaging fair.

A special program called “Holy Chutzpah: The Audacity to Believe My Individual Actions Can Make a Real Difference”, encouraged teens — in light of the situation in Israel — to take on a new mitzvah in the hopes of making a difference as part of the larger nation of Am Yisrael. 

Participants were grouped into chaburahs during the day, and had the option of furthering their studies at a fun evening Mishmar program.

“At the chaburahs, we could ask and say anything about how we feel,” says Caicedo. “It was such a comfortable group and there was always someone there to respond, who also assured us that our questions and feelings are okay and that everyone is at a different level of commitment.”

Rabbi Tenebaum reflects that while Yarchei Kallah had so many incredible highlights, his inspiration comes from one thing, year after year: “One night I sat down to learn with a teen in a room full of other teens who opted to learn Torah. I find their passion and eagerness so absolutely moving.”

Ping pong champion Estee Ackerman demonstrates technique at a Yarchei Kallah breakout session

Among the most memorable events was “The Power of One Fair”, where teens chose from a variety of meaningful activities including challah baking, decorating shoes for Israeli teens, packing spices for a mobile food pantry, and challenging national table tennis athlete Estee Ackerman to a game of ping pong, after hearing her remarkable story of faith in the face of religious discrimination. 

An inspiring musical and dance-filled havdalah ceremony led by NCSY International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland was followed by a soulful kumzitz led by Rabbi Daniel Kalish and the Mesivta of Waterbury. The night continued with an exciting game night including arcades, virtual reality, a photo booth, and deejay.

Perhaps the most powerful event was “A Night of Solidarity and Inspiration With Our Brothers and Sisters In Israel,” featuring video reflections and songs performed live by Shulem Lemmer, and a siyum dedicated to the October 7 victims and captives. More than 500 people participated, including 100 yeshiva day school teens from New York and New Jersey, and 50 NCSY Shevet Glaubach Fellows, who joined Yarchei Kallah participants and staff.

“All the teens were randomly grouped together and each group studied an Aliyah from Parshat Bereishit all the way until Parashat Vayechi,” says Rabbi Bernstein. “In 10 minutes, we completed the entire Sefer Bereishit and we made a siyum on behalf of everyone who never had the chance to say, ‘Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek’. It was so powerful.”

Beyond the wonderful memories, new friends, and a new weekly chaburah which adds to the existing three she has with NCSY advisors, Davis left the retreat feeling strengthened in her Jewish practice and commitment.

“On Yarchei Kallah, I felt like I could truly be myself,” she says. “I felt loved, and I felt unity. It was so special to be surrounded by Jewish teens from public schools from all over the US and other countries. I go to a public school and have really felt distant and alone at times, especially after October 7. But after attending Yarchei Kallah I gained so much confidence and pride.”

Yarchei Kallah participants from the National Board at NCSY’s signature Havdalah program

For Caceido, the retreat was equally memorable and impactful.

“Yarchei Kallah brought me into a warm family and helped me to understand what it means to be a Jew,” she says. “Today I’m still in contact with friends and advisors whom I met last year, and I know that they have my back. It’s an amazing community and I’m so grateful to be part of it.”