More Than 200 Students Enrich Holiday Celebrations in 48 Communities Across North America
This holiday season, more than 200 Yeshiva University students traveled to 48 communities across North America to share their passion for Torah and bring their energy and enthusiasm to local celebrations as part of YU’s Torah Tours mission. For more than 40 years, Torah Tours has brought students to synagogues as close as West Orange, New Jersey, and as far as Montreal, Quebec, and Palo Alto, California, where they deliver shiurim [lectures], lead prayer services and programming for children and add their spirit to the dancing on Simchat Torah, all while gaining valuable insight into how Jewish communal life functions in different areas.
“We are so proud of our students who spent their yom tov [holiday] bringing their energy, spirit and Torah to Jewish communities all over the United States and Canada,” said Naomi Kohl, director of student life on the Israel Henry Beren Campus and coordinator of the Torah Tours missions. “We have heard back from many of the communities about how thrilled they were with our students and how they went above and beyond in their roles over yom tov. Our students have also expressed their appreciation for the amazing opportunity they had to share their knowledge and spirit with those in need and have hakarat hatov [gratitude] for the wonderful hachnasat orchim [hospitality] they received as well.”
For the students, this year’s mission was a deeply moving experience.
“Having been impacted and inspired by having Torah Tours coming to my own hometown growing up, I wanted to sign up so that I could have the opportunity to do the same for another community,” said Meredith Shapiro, a junior majoring in business intelligence and marketing analytics from Chicago, Illinois. Her team traveled to Keneseth Beth Israel in Richmond, Virginia. “The most meaningful moment of the trip was when Ava, the little girl whose house we were staying at, told my partner Goldie and I on the way back from shul that it was the best day ever after dancing with us all day long.”
For Yael Steinberg, a senior majoring in biochemistry from Queens, New York, this year’s visit to Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, Massachusetts, was her fifth Torah Tours trip. “I keep coming back because I love the opportunity to meet people and connect with Jewish communities all over North America,” she said. “I really enjoyed spending a meal at the home of the shul’s rabbi, where we got to meet some incredible community members. As with my previous Torah Tours experiences, Simchat Torah in Newton exposed me to different practices and ideas. Every community is different, and it is always interesting to see how those differences play out.”
Gideon Turk, a junior majoring in biology from Toronto, Ontario, witnessed an especially unusual event during his mission to West Orange. “Across the street from the Orthodox shul we were spending our yom tov with, there was a conservative shul,” he recalled. “On Simchat Torah morning, we did joint hakafot [dancing] together with the conservative shul outside on the street, and it was truly incredible to witness this unity between two different Jewish communities, both coming together to celebrate their own love for Torah with each other.”
Shimon Niren, a junior from Elizabeth, New Jersey, majoring in accounting and minoring in architecture, was struck by the challenges that confront smaller communities like Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “The entire situation was so different from the large Jewish towns that we are so familiar with,” he said. “We saw so many different personalities, figures and ways of life. There were a few times on yom tov where we even made the minyan. The trip was empowering and really showed me how much of an impact I have as a frum [pious] Jew. For people in these communities who want to grow, seeing young, dedicated, and happy Jews inspires them to keep striving for personal greatness.”
Tehilla Berger, a biochemistry sophomore from Far Rockaway, New York, and Yehoshua Szafranski, a sophomore from Teaneck, New Jersey, studying political science and educational psychology, felt a connection to Congregation Beth Israel in Metairie, Louisiana, right away.
“The most meaningful part of my trip was probably when we danced our heads off with Rabbi Gabe and the rest of the congregants in front of the synagogue’s ark,” said Szafranski. “Plastered upon the ark is the verse from Song of Songs (8:7): ‘Mighty waters can’t quench our love [for You]…’ Even after being under ten feet of water—twice!—this community continues to show what it means to serve God and their fellow man with love and joy. I am forever grateful for this experience.”
“Dancing on Simchat Torah is always enjoyable, but this was of a completely different caliber,” said Berger. “There is a large age gap in the shul, primarily because of Hurricane Katrina – virtually all the families with teenagers were displaced then and few have returned. We were able to bridge the gap, jumping with the children while simultaneously circle-dancing with the older members. I came into Metairie feeling like a guest and left feeling like part of the community. Our team of 6 increased the shul attendance by 30 percent!”
Their team was so moved by the community’s warmth and hospitality that they purchased a shtender [prayer stand] cover for the shul with the Hebrew verse “How I love Your Torah/It is my conversation all day” embroidered on it. “I was enlightened by the rich history, the southern culture and the difficulties and challenges of being part of a small, devoted Jewish community, and I had the opportunity to share Torah, meet fascinating individuals and learn about their past and perseverance,” said Berger. “But most importantly, I felt as though I had made a difference.”