Student-Run Hisoriri Community Fellowship Program Builds Lasting Relationships to Support Small Congregations
When Yeshiva College student Moshe Kurtz signed up for a Center for the Jewish Future Torah Tours shabbaton in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, he expected to deliver divrei Torah to community members and enhance their celebration of the yom tov by adding his own ruach [spirit] to the dancing and festivities. What he didn’t expect was to find himself also delivering a Yizkor sermon and leading the service. “The shul didn’t have a rabbi at the time, and there were a lot of additional responsibilities we had to take on,” he said. “It was a powerful experience. I found myself looking for opportunities to give like that throughout the year, not just on Shavuot and Simchat Torah.”
Through Hisoriri, an organization created and run on campus by fellow student Dov Winston, he found exactly what he was looking for. At the time, Hisoriri sought to provide students and small communities with more Torah Tours-like experiences throughout the year, sending delegations of Yeshiva University students to local shuls that would benefit from their passion for Torah and desire to get involved. Kurtz couldn’t get enough of the shabbatons, and together, he and Winston built a volunteer network to help them coordinate more and more of them throughout the school year. But the two felt there was more to be done.
“What we realized was that there were so many shabbatons and inspirational experiences but there was no chance to develop a relationship between the community and the volunteers because the students were different every time,” said Kurtz. “The communities really had a desire for students who understand their specific needs better.”
So, in addition to their usual programming of more than 20 shabbatons in a wide range of communities, the Hisoriri team created a community fellowship program. Supported by Neal’s Fund, the program assigns two fellows—a male and female student—to each of five local communities to organize monthly shabbatons that cater to the strengths and weaknesses of each particular place, with volunteers that have been briefed on the communities’ needs and understand its constituents. “The goal is to strengthen Orthodox Jewish communities in America by strengthening shuls that might not have as much financing, programming, religious resources or even congregants as the next place,” said Kurtz. “As we strengthen them and help them grow, we’re also giving Jewish leadership opportunities to regular volunteers and even more so the fellows assigned to the community.”
Set to begin in Fall 2017, the fellowship program offers potential for YU students to develop meaningful relationships with communities that Kurtz hopes will last beyond a single visit. “One of the advantages of getting to know the community is that you can work together with rabbinic and lay leadership to suggest your own ideas of how to help, in addition to meeting their needs,” he said. “For example, we went to a community in Paramus where they asked us to lead davening and programming, but we noticed a ton of teenagers around who had no special mentors or programs of their own. So we said, ‘Hey, we can run a special teen learning program every Shabbos afternoon,’ and it’s been a huge hit.”
For Kurtz, though, Hisoriri isn’t just about giving back—he strongly believes that the leadership experience it offers students is critical to their own development and growth, regardless of what careers they choose to pursue. “It gives you sensitivity and understanding about how to be the best Jewish leader you can be,” he said. “And a lot of the shuls we work with are so small, it’s really a good training ground to cultivate your own skills. These are great opportunities for students to work on things like, for example, public speaking skills in a low-pressure environment with friends to support them.”
This has definitely been true for Rachel Somorov, a biology major at Stern College for Women from St. Louis, Missouri, who will serve as community fellow to Bayonne, New Jersey, after falling in love with the community during her time with Hisoriri there this year. “I cannot describe how rewarding an experience it was to spend Shabbos with the community there,” she said. “You could see on their faces how meaningful it was for them that we came. There is so much love and respect between the community members because the bottom line in a small community is, ‘We are all Jews—one people who must stand together.’ I love the mix of hashkafot [religious philosophies] and the openness with one another.”
She added, “Preparing divrei torah or children’s group activities is a great way to bring extra Torah learning into a busy life. I love Hisoriri because it keeps me grounded in the big picture of life. As a fellow my goal is to become a friend of the community. I love when community members share their experiences with me, and over time I hope to share my passion for Judaism with them.”
Matthew Silkin, a senior majoring in English from Boca Raton, Florida, initially became involved with Hisoriri to broaden his horizons and experience what Shabbat was like in other communities. Next year, he’ll serve as the fellow for a congregation in New Rochelle, New York. “I hope to bring a more consistent ruach to the community and to foster my own sense of leadership by acting as a coordinator between the community and the program,” he said.
As for Kurtz himself, after he completes his degree in psychology next year, the Far Rockaway, New York native plans to pursue semicha at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and hopes to become a chaplain in the U.S. Army. Ultimately, after completing a tour of service, his dream would be to become a pulpit rabbi in a small Jewish community, working with Hisoriri students to build it up. “I’ve always thought these out-of-town communities are so beautiful,” he said. “There’s so much to contribute. Everyone knows each other; everyone matters.”