By Yehudah Meth
It’s a sweltering 95 degrees in Lakewood, NJ. Office air conditioning systems are working overtime, Jewish children are off at camp or away in the mountains, and Oorah’s staff is getting ready for Sukkos.
Sounds crazy? Not when you realize how many things Oorah has to accomplish before the Yomim Tovim arrive in the fall-and how many people are relying on them.
“We sent 2000 lulavim and esrogim to the families we work with-Jewish families who would not otherwise have everything they needed to properly celebrate Sukkos,” explained Rabbi Yehoshua Weinstein, Oorah’s Director of Kiruv. “Every child who went to our camps, every child whose tuition we take care of, and every TorahMate, gets a package. Often, these lulavim and esrogim are shared by a whole family, so it’s really more like 10,000 Jews who are benching Oorah’s lulavim and esrogim. Multiply that by six days and you can imagine how that makes us feel! Sure it’s a lot of work, and a lot to plan and keep track of, but reaching out to families like this-sending them packages with arba minim-is something that really touches their hearts and allows us to reinforce what their children took away from camp only weeks before.”
Of course, coordinating something at this level takes real time, solid organization, and a dedicated group of staff members and volunteers. Henny, a staffer at Oorah for many years, gets the ball rolling by ordering the arba minim-negotiating the price, ensuring kashrus, and organizing volunteers to make the keshalach. She also has special boxes made specifically to protect the lulavim and esrogim so they will arrive undamaged and makes sure that there will be enough time for bochurim to check the lulavim before they are shipped. “We start shipping right before Yom Kippur,” she explained, “so everything must be ready to go by Rosh Hashanah. There’s no time to waste!”
But Oorah doesn’t stop there. The organization’s “Sukkas for Sukkos” campaign is another key component to their kiruv work during zman simchasanu. For several years now, Oorah has been selling custom-designed sukkahs to those frum families who desire something really special for the Yom Tov; they then take the proceeds and supply kiruv families who would be otherwise eating indoors. “We have a number of wonderful bochurim who delivered and built these special sukkas,” Henny said. “They come to the kiruv families’ homes, set them up, and talk to them about the holiday. Some of these families just can’t believe how much we’re giving them. I mean, a lulav and esrog is one thing, but a whole sukkah? And we’re willing to build it, too? The phone calls we get afterwards-the letters-it’s very heart warming.” Henny noted that one father, in particular, had allowed his son to go to BoyZone but was still fairly anti-religious himself and very cynical about Yiddishkeit. “But after he received a sukkah, he opened up to us,” she said. “He was very touched and now we’re not only working with his son but also with him.”
Sukkos in Gilboa: Reuniting with Rav Chaim Mintz
While Oorah’s Sukkos kiruv events have proven successful for years, this year the organization added another innovative program. In Gilboa, NY, home to Oorah’s popular BoyZone and GirlZone summer camps, HaRav Chaim Mintz, the organization’s founder, celebrated the first days of Sukkos with his own children and grandchildren as well as scores of baalei teshuvah who are now Bnei Torah thanks to Oorah’s fine work. Nearly 140 people came from as far away as Atlanta, GA, to reunite as a family with their first rebbe.
“The most important thing that people who have always been observant have that baalei teshuvah lack is frum families,” explained an Oorah staff member. “If you grow up frum, you have parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters to share the holidays with. But baalei teshuvah usually have to rely on themselves. So this Sukkos, we really became their family.” Indeed, everything was provided-from the food and the sukkahs to the warmth and the shmoozing.
As most people involved with kiruv work understand, many baalei teshuvah find themselves virtually orphaned after becoming frum. “Rav Chaim recognized this problem early on,” explains Rabbi Weinstein. “That why it’s so important for us to stay with the families that we are mekaraiv. They become part of Oorah’s family, and part of Rav Chaim’s. They are at his family events, and he is at theirs.”
Some of the families at Oorah’s Sukkos in Gilboa had been frum for decades, while others had only been observant for a few years. But, as one volunteer observed, one would have had a hard time distinguishing newcomers from old-timers and volunteers. At Oorah’s Sukkos in Gilboa, everyone was family.
Chol HaMoed with Oorah: From Toronto to New Roc City
As soon as the first days of Yom Tov ended, Oorah’s team was back in high-gear, coordinating Chol haMoed trips and events for its kiruv kids. Oorah’s BoyZone and GirlZone camps hosted two special events at New Roc City in New Rochelle, NY-one on Tuesday, Oct. 6, for girl campers, and one on Wednesday, Oct. 7, for boy campers. Activities included an indoor arcade with bowling and rides, dinner, music and dancing, as well as benching lulav and esrog.
“Get-togethers like this are extremely important for our campers,” explained Rabbi Elisha Lewenstein, Director of Oorah’s BoyZone and GirlZone camps. “It’s an opportunity for our campers to reunite with our staff, who are true Bnai Torah, and strengthen the relationships they built at camp. They have good, clean fun on these trips and experience Yiddishkeit and a taste of Tom Tov in an environment without pressure.”
Fun, yes, but it didn’t happen by accident. Busses were carefully coordinated from Queens, Brooklyn, Lakewood, Passaic, Monsey and Cherry Hill-20 buses in all. And after nearly four hours of fun and meals with their counselors and TorahMates, Oorah’s kiruv kids were then shuttled to a beautiful Simchas Bais Hashoeiva party with HaRav Chaim Mintz at the Gvul Yaabetz Shul on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. There, many of the boys were joined by their families, as well as R’ Mintz’s talmidim from the Yeshiva of Staten Island. It was a night of music, dancing, and endless food that the campers would not soon forget.
Meanwhile, another group of Oorah’s staff and volunteers were coordinating girls’ and boys’ Chol Hamoed trips. “We drove from Lakewood to pick up the boys in Toronto, then took them to Niagara Falls for a really special day,” said Yossi Klugman, an Oorah volunteer who is active helping boys at BoyZone and throughout the year. “The boys were taken to various activities including The Maid of the Mist and Crystal Caves.” Oorah’s team brought the boys kosher food and ate with them in a Sukkah. “We also showed them a visual presentation of themselves with their friends from a few months ago at BoyZone,” said Klugman. “Everything they’d had at camp was reinforced.”
The girls’ trip in Toronto was equally powerful and well attended. Oorah volunteers and staff joined girls for a long daytrip that included Niagara Falls and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. “They were very happy to be with us,” said one of Oorah’s staff members. “It really wouldn’t have felt like Chol HaMoed for these girls without our participation-and their parents were very grateful, especially considering how far we drove.”
Oorah in the Holy Land
In Jerusalem, Oorah’s growing staff was also delivering a special Sukkos to the many Oorah boys who found themselves learning in Israel. “We have over 30 boys who were once BoyZone staff that stay very close here,” explained Rabbi Akiva Goldberger, an Oorah volunteer for more than 15 years. Rabbi Goldberger, who was brought up on Staten Island, came under HaRav Chaim Mintz’s tutelage at a young age. Today, he learns full time and he and his wife, an Oorah staff member, live in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood. “Many of the boys here were once BoyZone campers; the others were boys whose day school or yeshiva educations were paid for by Oorah. When they come to Eretz Yisroel, we make sure they feel at home.”
Because it was the beginning of the zman, the Oorah team agreed that Sukkos was the perfect opportunity to connect with Oorah’s kids-both with the ones they already knew as well as the boys who had just arrived. “We had an excellent Simchas Bais Hashoeiva put together by one of our guys, Menachem Tenenbaum, a bochur who is now at the Mir and has been one of our volunteers for years,” said Rabbi Goldberger.
The Simchas Bais Hashoeiva took place in a beautiful sukkah on a rooftop in Ramat Eshkol, replete with a four-piece band and plenty of good food. “We were up all night singing and dancing,” said Rabbi Goldberger. “It was like Simchas Torah! You could really see the friendship, the achdus. It was beautiful.”
Oorah’s Simchas Bais Hashoeiva in Jerusalem had a special significance this year, too. During the Yom Tov, one of Oorah’s kiruv boys, who had only been in Israel for a short time, was at the Belzer tish surrounded by hundreds of Chassidim when he suddenly suffered a seizure. The boy was then hospitalized for three days before he could be released. “Our counselors held a round-the-clock vigil with this boy at the hospital,” said Rabbi Goldberger. “The truth is, had he not gone to our camp and had only been sent to Eretz Yisroel by, say, a rabbi or a yeshiva, he would probably have been alone. We don’t allow that-we’re here to cushion each other. Oorah becomes a huge family here for anyone that was touched by our organization. So the Simchas Bais Hashoeiva held a special significance to this boy, who was only out of the hospital for a day. And it had a special significance to us, too.” Indeed it did.