What’s Unique About Oorah’s BoyZone


boyzone-oorahBy Rabbi Elli Bohm

[Photos Below.] I had the privilege of being a specialty division head for the past two years at Oorah’s Camp BoyZone. This experience was a humbling one. It introduced to me to a world of care and devotion to changing children’s lives.

I have been in several camps over the course of many summers and I have thus been asked dozens of times, “What is unique about BoyZone?”

My summers at BoyZone were experiences like I had never had before. From the moment I joined the BoyZone team, it was like I had joined a new family – a family that is very hard to forget. You are part of that family even throughout the year (and I don’t mean through all the mail and booklets sent to my house or by seeing the Oorah family album in every house I visit that has a Yated Ne’eman).

What I mean is that once you join Oorah, it literally becomes part of you. There is a staff of dedicated individuals, all on the same mission: to do whatever is in their power to make their campers happy throughout the year. Whether it’s learning with a TorahMate, inviting campers for a Shabbos meal, Shabbatons, get-togethers, Motzoei Shabbos Avos Ubonim programs, discussions and consultations with the campers’ teachers and principals, it’s a full-year operation.

Seeing some of your campers put on tzitzis and tefillin for the very first time, all because of your and your fellow staff member’s encouragement, turns you into a different person.

But in addition to the feeling of accomplishment, I observed how all the staff members were not the same self-conscious individuals in camp as during the year. If it made campers happy to see you dress up, jump and dance, you did just that without thinking twice. At BoyZone, every staff member puts their own pride or dignity aside. I had never seen anything like this before. BoyZone is in a different realm.

I tried describing this feeling to others who never experienced it before; it was almost impossible to explain it. You have to just experience it yourself. The achdus amongst the entire staff was exceptional. There was not an ounce of shtoltz, gaavah or jealousy amongst the staff.  There was no one who tried to outdo another; everyone worked together. The reason, I think, is simple: We were not there for ourselves, but for our campers. This summer, especially, when we had somewhat of a challenging start, the outpouring of love, care and concern displayed towards the campers from all the staff members was remarkable. Who can forget the dancing at the first Shabbos meal, after a whole day of exhausting traveling and arriving minutes before the zeman?

There were so many outstanding achievements this summer in bringing children closer to Yiddishkeit.

The following are a few that inspired me personally:

The morning after the teen division watched a very inspirational video on tefillin, the entire division arrived at Shacharis early, eager to put on tefillin. Many of the boys began to wear tzitzis in camp every day as well.

On Leil Tisha B’Av, it was incredible to observe over two hundred campers choking up, many with tears in their eyes, as they watched a very moving presentation about tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout the ages.

While we were waiting for the camp’s gorgeous new campus to be completed and we spent some time at the Raleigh Hotel and Kutchers Hotel, many of the hotel guests were awed by the ruach and love that Oorah’s staff displayed towards the campers. One guest approached me and commented that although she always purchased $18 worth of Oorah auction tickets each year, she never knew what Oorah does. Observing us in the hotel, she was so impressed. She said that she has made up her mind that for this year’s auction, she will iy”H donate at least $500 to this great cause.

When we were running late on our first Friday afternoon, a camper approached me in distress. He related that he does not have the ability to keep Shabbos at home. He was so anxious to at least keep Shabbos in camp. He wanted to know if we will arrive in time, as he does not want to desecrate Shabbos while he is in camp. I was so touched by this. The sincerity of this camper infused me with such inspiration that first Shabbos.

Our primary theme and focus this summer was promoting and strengthening shemiras Shabbos. Special programs were implemented each Shabbos to spread this awareness, the two color war teams were dedicated to this, etc. We even had over 150 campers willing to commit to keep the last Shabbos in camp in its totality in order to get the privilege to have a private picture taken of them with the mashgiach, Rav Chaim Mintz. The picture had in its background the words “Zachor es yom haShabbos” and will serve as a reminder for them throughout the year whenever they look at this special picture hanging in their bedroom.

On the last Shabbos of the season, I spoke to the camp Friday night about how people rise from challenges and how every struggle is well worth its outcome. I spoke about how hard it is to keep Shabbos in a non-religious home when everyone around you is engaged in mundane activities and may even ridicule you for not taking part. In some cases, it may almost be impossible to fully keep Shabbos in such surroundings. Nonetheless, I stressed that at the very least, they should dedicate two hours during the day when they will not do any melacha and will spend that time reading and thinking about how to be a better Jew and perhaps even learn some Torah for the honor of Shabbos. After that speech, one camper came over to me and said that even a two-hour commitment might sometimes be very hard for him to keep, as his family often travels and has family outings and it is very hard for him not to participate. However, he would love to at least make Kiddush Friday night and have some challah in honor of Shabbos, he said. He wanted to know if I can help him out. When he gets older, his dream is to join an out-of-town yeshiva, where he will be able to keep Shabbos completely, like he did in camp.

Another camper told me that although his parents keep a kosher kitchen at home, they are not that careful when they go out to eat. He wanted to know how he should conduct himself in such situations.

I once went with some junior division campers to the local supermarket to buy ice cream. They were all excited as they fumbled through the ice creams to find ones with an OU symbol.

It was amazing to watch how many of the public school campers who were not able to even read the Alef-Bais stayed in shul and davened with such fervor while reading the English from an ArtScroll siddur.

If this is the effect that camp can have on such young, pure neshamos, how can any staff member not walk away feeling like a different person?

For many of the campers, BoyZone is their first religious experience. On visiting day, it was so incredible to watch Rav Chaim Mintz meeting with many of the parents and attempting to convince them to switch their children from public school to yeshiva. He emphasized to them how happy the children are in camp and that they should give their children the opportunity to continue what they started. Many parents were also convinced to start learning with a TorahMate learning partner themselves.

Oorah’s philosophy – reaching the entire family by having a positive effect on the children – has seen tremendous hatzlacha and siyata diShmaya.

It is humbling to be part of such a wonderful organization.

{Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne’eman}

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