By Daniella Abekassis
Hewlett High School, 12th grade
I experienced the unbelievable power we all have to find meaning and create connection in our lives. Instead of sitting on the beach this winter break, I, along with 380 other public-school teens from all over America, Canada, Chile, and Argentina, came together to expand our understanding of Judaism and learn Torah for five days at NCSY’s yarchei kallah.
No matter what background you come from, NCSY gives every Jewish teen the opportunity to explore their heritage. Whether you grew up in an observant household or know absolutely nothing about Judaism, NCSY college-age role models and staff members are there to sit and learn with you and help you on your spiritual journey.
While it is hard to sum up the incredible five-day experience in a short article, I will share with you some of the inspiring highlights from this amazing retreat. On the first day, everyone was welcomed into the beit midrash for orientation. Once we were all in one room, it was astounding to realize how many of us there are in the world. The sound of teens cheering for their region filled the air with excitement and anticipation for the amazing program that would follow. Everyone began this journey one way and came out as well-rounded Jewish individuals.
Throughout the week, we learned about the meaning and the essence of prayer, the way to pray, how Hashem answers our prayers, and how no prayers are ever wasted. Prayers might not always be answered, but there always is a purpose. You never know. Your entire existence can be the result of someone else’s prayer. Your words never go to waste. Even if Hashem says no, your prayer can affect something or someone else who needs it more.
In our morning chaburos (learning groups) we learned that in the Shemoneh Esreh, we pray for da’at (knowledge). We ask Hashem to give us the opportunity to understand what is holy and what is not. We also ask Him for teshuvah and to draw us closer to Torah. The most important thing to understand is why we ask Hashem for understanding before we ask Him to bring us closer. With understanding, it allows us to make the closeness last. Without understanding, there is no reason to want to be closer with Hashem. You cannot start a journey before knowing what the destination may be.
I did not plan on going to yarchei kallah. I had no friends from my region going, so I went to my advisers and said there was no way I was going to Connecticut for my winter break. However, one of my advisers, Deeni Adler, approached me and said, “I’m coming to pick you up after Shabbos and we are going to Great Neck. You will meet some friends and then you will go!” I was like, “Yeah, right, I’ll go with you but there is no way I’m going on YK.”
I went out to dinner with Deeni and the girls from Great Neck and they turned out to be amazing people.
I couldn’t be more thankful to Deeni Adler and NCSY for yarchei kallah. It was an unbelievable experience that’s hard to express in words. I have made friends that I feel will last a lifetime, as we try to advance our understanding of Judaism together. Through this experience, I realized that Judaism is alive.
Many of us went beyond our comfort zones to explore something we could have never imagined. Some teens came on YK knowing nothing about tefillah, but left with new experiences and interest. Some of us had never lit Shabbat candles before, but were able to see the beauty and commitment by watching the staff and learning how to do it. Boys who never put on tefillin before became excited about doing it. Most of us, who never owned a Jewish book before, left with a nice start for our libraries!
This yarchei kallah marked the sixth month that I have kept Shabbat and it was the best one that I have had. I started during the summer, on NCSY’s Anne Samson TJJ Summer programs. Having so many people by my side to celebrate Shabbat made me feel like I had accomplished something great. An important person once told me, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you come about doing it.” Teens out there who come from a background that is not filled with religion and decide to take it upon themselves to begin a journey of exploration inspire me every day. People ask how I have done it all on my own. My answer is that there is no such thing as doing it on your own when you have NCSY. Each staff member and adviser has been there for me at all times, day or night, to learn with me on the phone or in person. They keep me going every day.
By the end of yarchei kallah, we had created an unforgettable family. We hugged, said our goodbyes, and planned on keeping in touch forever, hoping to continue our Jewish studies in the future with the amazing people who were there from the start of our journey.
While at yarchei kallah, Rabbi Lashak, one of the senior educators for NCSY, said “When Mashiach comes, he isn’t going to go first to Eliyahu, or Moshe Rabbeinu . . . He is going to go to all of the teens here on YK who chose to learn Torah during their winter break.”
NCSY is the international youth movement of the OU and is dedicated to connecting, inspiring, and empowering Jewish teens to embrace Judaism through Torah and tradition. NCSY connects with Jewish teens through innovative, cutting-edge social and recreational programs throughout the school year to help them develop a positive Jewish identity. In addition, NCSY inspires Jewish teens to build strong connections to Israel through informal Jewish education, retreats, and summer programs. NCSY helps empower teens through its leadership to become committed leaders themselves, as well as instruments for positive change and renewal in Jewish communities.