Everyone loves the Avos Ubonim program. It’s the ideal opportunity for fathers and sons to join together each week in a special, memorable learning session that also creates an additional bond between fathers and sons. But for boys whose fathers aren’t interested in learning, or who are incapable of learning – or, worse, boys who don’t have fathers at all – an awareness of the worldwide program is often times just another reminder of what they’re missing.
Oorah has developed a Learn-and-Earn Avos Ubonim program that offers a thoughtful, practical answer to this problem. It began just one year ago when several sympathetic bochurim – all counselors at Oorah’s BoyZone camp and participants in the organization’s Torah Mates program – approached Oorah’s founder, Rav Chaim Mintz, with an acute observation: Each Motzoei Shabbos, tens of thousands of Jews worldwide participate in their local shuls‘ Avos Ubonim programs. Oorah’s counselors, who volunteer their time to learn year-round with their Torah Mates, wanted to build a custom Avos Ubonim program for their kids – their campers and Torah Mates. Who would be the fathers to these bonim? Oorah.
“Avos Ubonim programs are wonderful, but they are typically non-staffed events because fathers are literally learning with their sons and not much else is needed,” explains Rabbi Yehoshua Weinstein, head of Oorah’s successful kiruv programs. “Our bochurim understood instinctively that creating a program like this would require new and regular staff commitments – father-figure chavrusos for not only the many kiruv boys who would attend, but also chavrusos for any of the boys’ fathers who we also hoped to entice to join us.”
Indeed, it meant new commitments for lots of people, but who could say no to this? “These kiruv kids are like family members to their Torah Mates,” says Rabbi Weinstein. “So we thought about it and said, “Let’s go.'”
Last year, Rabbi Asher Futersak, the champion of Oorah’s Avos Ubonim concept, approached Rav Yisroel Reisman for permission to open the program in his shul, Agudas Yisroel of Madison in Brooklyn.
“Rav Reisman said to me, ‘How can I hold back a makom of Hakadosh Boruch Hu, especially for such a choshuveh purpose?’ In addition to opening their facilities, several members of Rav Reisman’s shul – particularly Eliyohu Goldberg and Pinchas Neuman – really helped us get everything off the ground. Simcha Rosenfeld and Yehoshua Piotorovski, bochurim from the Novominsk Yeshiva, ran the program. We had close to 150 people the first week. On a bad night, we get 60 kids.”
The program was soon repeated at Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim in Queens, and then a third program was started at Oorah’s Lakewood facilities.
This year, under the direction of R’ Futersak, who doubles as a BoyZone division head, Oorah’s Avos Ubonim program saw the number of its learners nearly double.
“We supply the volunteers like fathers, then bend over backwards to make sure the kids have the best time in the world,” explains Oorah’s Rabbi Louie Friedman. “We tell stories before and after the learning to encourage them, and we then follow up and try to get their fathers to come. This requires us to work hard behind the scenes in ways that people would never see, but it’s important to get the fathers learning with us, too.”
Rabbi Friedman recalls seeing one boy arrive without his father. “He was jealous; it was obvious. But we were encouraging and eventually the boy’s father was connected. And what a difference this made to this boy! Once this boy’s father was involved, he was even more motivated. Now, a year later, the boy who came to us through our camp as a public school kid is in day school because we were able to inspire his father.”
R’ Futersak says the program is not without its challenges. “How do you get a kid who is going to the movies on a Saturday night to come to something like this instead?” he asks. “We know that learning Torah is a tremendous opportunity for them, but they don’t expect to enjoy themselves. Once we have them there, it opens their eyes. They learn and their minds are excited and they hear Rav Chaim Mintz afterwards and are inspired, but we have to start them off by enticing them with prizes and pizza.”
R’ Futersak says that some of his experiences with the program have been very moving. “I saw Rav Chaim ask a boy how he got there, and the boy said that he took the train. ‘How old are you?’ asked Rav Chaim. ‘Twelve,’ said the boy. Think about that! This boy was like the earlier generations! He had come a long distance by himself into the city to learn!”
Two of the boys walked all the way from Bensonhurst to the Agudah in the snow. “We walked about an hour and 45 minutes to go to the program, because we like the program a lot,” said David, a camper at BoyZone. “It’s just a lot of fun and I learned a lot.”
“From Bensonhurst to deep into Flatbush in the freezing cold!” R’ Futersak marvels in a private moment. “That’s some walk! These boys aren’t even shomer Shabbos, yet they don’t want to desecrate Shabbos.”
Menachem Itzchaki, age 13, also raved about the program. “It’s really fun,” he says shyly. “I like the prizes and I like the learning because they make you understanding the stuff that you’re learning. ”
“My kids have a lot of fun and learn a lot at this program,” explains Eleanor Levy, whose three sons are regulars at Oorah’s Avos Ubonim. “Only two of my sons are in yeshiva and my third son is in public school, but this program was the highlight of his week – attending a Jewish program where he could learn Torah like his older brothers. It kept him going the whole week long.”
The boys who attend the Learn-and-Earn Avos Ubonim program are also treated to special guests, including Oorah’s founder, Rav Chaim Mintz, and Rabbi Avi Davidowitz, Dean of the Torah Academy of Brooklyn (TAB). With his years of experience as morah d’asrah of Oorah’s BoyZone and GirlZone camps, Rabbi Davidowitz has logged a lot of mileage as the av to numerous bonim.
“We’re not sure who really gets more out of this program, the kids or the bochurim who are there to help them,” Rabbi Weinstein comments. “The bochurim are forced to really strengthen their own learning because of the ‘job requirements.’ They are becoming rabbeim by virtue of teaching.”
Everyone involved in Oorah’s Avos Ubonim program reports how moved they are by what they see from these young boys.
“The kids have been so influenced by the camp that they’re hungry for more,” said one volunteer. “The idea is to give them light and we see the results. At the end of the program, we take the kids who came regularly and bring them upstate to our camp for an Avos Ubonim retreat. They spend Shabbos with us and this brings them that much closer. In time, the kids and their parents end up with year-round Torah Mates. Their lives have been changed forever.”