On March 6, the Orthodox Union lost a friend and vital board member, Ari Kahn, z’l. Ari was known for his larger-than-life smile, brilliant mind, and ability to become friends with anyone.
Ari first joined the NCSY world as a 13-year-old boy when he attended NCSY’s Camp Sports, and quickly grew in the ranks as an adviser, working his way up to becoming the head counselor. During the school year, Ari continued his kiruv work as an adviser for New York NCSY, and after a couple of years he became the head adviser for New York NCSY. Through Ari’s years at Camp Sports and New York NCSY he connected with hundreds of NCSYers, inspiring them to choose a path of Torah and mitzvot. Ari was brilliant and used his quick wit and intelligence to connect with teens of varying interests. Through these relationships he was then able to interest his NCSYers in Shabbos and Torah. Many of these NCSYers spent their first “real Shabbos” at Ari’s parents’ home in West Hempstead. And amazingly, throughout this time, Ari never deposited one NCSY paycheck because he viewed this work as a chesed and therefore did not think he should make money from his work.
After graduating from college, Ari attended Harvard Law School and whenever possible drove from Boston so that he could attend New York NCSY Shabbatons. Even upon graduation, Ari convinced one of the top NYC law firms that he needed a month off as a summer associate so that he could work at Camp Sports to help “underprivileged youth.” Once Ari joined the work force as a corporate attorney, it was nearly impossible to work at NCSY. Therefore, during Ari’s early years in corporate law, he transitioned to a behind-the-scenes role at Camp Sports and helped train advisers and senior staff members before camp began. A few years later, Ari joined the Orthodox Union’s board and then the executive committee as the organization’s secretary.
While a new board member, Ari helped his wife, Sari, create Camp Maor (which partnered with NCSY in 2016, becoming an NCSY summer program), the only one-month performing-arts overnight camp for Orthodox Jewish girls in the United States, so that their daughters would have a place to express themselves in a creative and frum environment. (Ari and Sari have four children, Keira, 13; Gitty, 13; Aliyah, 11; and Matis, 9.)
“We both felt very strongly that every girl needs an opportunity for a creative outlet,” says Sari Kahn. “Camp Maor is a unique place where every camper has the chance to express herself daily through the medium of the arts.” The program is designed to use the performing arts as the vessel through which its campers can hone skills and thereby develop self-confidence. Kahn explains that “frum women today work, run households of large families, and volunteer in their communities; a foundation in the performing arts will help prepare our girls for their roles as frum women in the future,” since the performing-arts process teaches vulnerability, empathy, collaboration, the ability to improvise and think on your feet, and, most importantly, grit and perseverance. “These are all skills that will help prepare our girls to succeed in the real world,” explains Kahn. And succeed they will. This summer, for the first time, more of Camp Maor’s counselors are former campers. These counselors grew up in the program and want to transfer the Camp Maor magic to the next generation of campers.
This summer, NCSY Camp Maor dedicated its annual summer’s theme, Friendship, and daily learning program based on the summer’s theme, in Ari’s memory. “Everyone talks about anti-bullying campaigns. Creating a viable camp community begins with friendship and this is our focus this summer,” explains Kahn.
“Every girl has a story to tell about why she came to Camp Maor and why she must come back next summer. And the underlying reason why these campers want to return is because of the friendships they’ve made with the staff and peers through their shared experience at NCSY Camp Maor,” explains NCSY Camp Maor’s Assistant Director Rena Rubin. The program’s success-driven program culminates in a final performance, beginning with a non-musical play for families and ending with an original song and dance performance for women only.
Rubin explains that, “This summer we chose to perform The Jungle Book because the theme of friendship is woven throughout the storyline.” Enny Wax, the camp’s musical director, adds, “This summer I wanted our final performance songs to portray who Ari was, as he was a vital member of the NCSY Camp Maor community. In Ari’s memory we performed a rewrite of ‘Acheinu,’ ‘Speechless’ from Disney’s Aladdin, and a tribute song specifically about Ari and who he was.”
NCSY Camp Maor was not the only NCSY summer program to honor Ari Kahn’s memory this summer. All of the 1,700 participants in the 21 programs were encouraged to participate in the “Ahava Pledge” where each NCSYer was encouraged to: (1) make new friends, (2) be nice to everyone, and (3) stick up for those who don’t have as strong of a voice as he/she has. Every participant received an “Ahava Pledge” silicone wristband in memory of Ari to help them remember the pledge they took and why they took it. Some of the programs expanded upon the “Ahava Pledge” and dedicated days of learning and chesed activities in Ari’s memory. NCSY Kollel dedicated their final Thursday-night mishmar program of the summer l’zecher nishmat Ari Kahn and specifically focused on learning achdut and ahavat chinam. NCSY Michlelet’s teen girls’ learning program learned source sheets teaching specific aspects of Ari’s ahavat Yisrael. The source sheets were prepared by Ari’s niece Ayelet Kahn, who was a camper on the program. After learning the source sheets in chaburahs, the NCSYers “filled out a form describing something new they learned, as well as something small they can take upon themselves based on their learning. It was very special and impactful,” explains Rivka Yudin, the director of NCSY Michlelet.
NCSY GIVE dedicated a week of chesed in Israel in Ari’s memory. GIVE NCSYers participated in medical clowning, assisted the blind, went on the One Family Walk, greeted a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight of new olim, painted a bomb shelter and kindergarten, and went to an amusement park with special-needs kids, all in memory of Ari Kahn, z’l. One NCSYer explained about the new olim that “We brought smiles to their faces in memory of Ari,” while another NCSYer said that “Just like Ari greeted everyone with a smile, we greeted all of the 95 new olim with smiles on our faces.” Erin Stiebel, director of NCSY GIVE, added, “Despite Ari being taken from us far too soon, his impact was so widespread and his mission was so clear: Love your fellow Jew and do constant goodness for others. We on NCSY GIVE took his message and ran with it.”
NCSY Camp Sports dedicated a morning of learning to the concept of “Love Ya Brother,” a phrase that Ari was known for, as he related to his friends as his brothers. Ari’s brother Avrumie joined the camp that morning and spoke about Ari, and then the NCSYers all took the “Ahava Pledge” and received their silicone wristbands. Rabbi Jon Green, the director of NCSY Camp Sports, explains, “The remainder of the summer we spoke about truly loving your brother and finding ‘Love Your Brother’ moments all summer and beyond.”
The constant message was that much more impactful as Ari’s nephew Mordechai attended NCSY Camp Sports this summer. This concept of finding these moments of ahavat achim in our daily lives epitomizes Ari’s legacy, as Rabbi Green summed up beautifully when he said, “If you truly believe in the concept of ‘Love Ya Brother,’ then your program becomes more than a camp or summer experience; you become a family.”