By C.B. Weinfeld
The atmosphere was charged, pulsating with energy. This was the grand banquet, the final hurrah. The 60-plus participants of “Push Your Limits,” a week of profound discoveries and intense learning, were gathered in the banquet hall of the Aish HaTorah World Center in Yerushalayim to bid farewell to one another.
Actually, it wasn’t a true farewell. More like an “I’ll see you later.” For the friendships that were forged between the unlikely pairs—24 heimishe businessmen from the tri-state area and beyond, and the 30-plus college students they had mentored—were cemented in their shared experiences. Spending a full week learning, growing, asking questions, and rappelling down a mountain cliff will do that.
For the college students, this was the traditional vacation holiday week, December 24–January 5. Highlights of the week included intense daily learning sessions, lavish meals, and afternoons pushing one’s limits. Extreme activities included zip-lining, rappelling, hiking, and counter-terrorism training, while forging friendships between the chavrusas, who had formed a close common bond.
As Mr. Shammai Goldstein, one of the participants, expressed, “Some of these boys were far removed from Yiddishkeit. One of the students only recently discovered he was Jewish. After spending nearly a week together, learning one on one, getting to know each other’s dreams, fears, and aspirations, we had come to realize there’s more that unites us than divides us.”
When Rabbis Chaim Sampson, Mordechai Tropp, Yaakov Giniger, and Yossie Friedman of Project Inspire, a program of Aish International, created the program, dubbed, “A Week of Inspiration: Inspire Yourself and Inspire Others,” they couldn’t have possibly imagined its impact.
Partnering with the introductory program of Aish HaTorah Jerusalem, and using their magnificent Old City campus as a base, the innovative program united a group of American college students from Ivy League schools—Harvard, Berkeley, etc. with successful businessmen.
“The goal was to unite unaffiliated college students on their winter break with mentors who will teach them, answer their questions, help them grow,” said Mr. Shaul Greenwald, another participant. “Ultimately, we grew as much as they did.”
Soon it was Sunday evening, and the luggage was packed. Emotions ran high at the parting banquet, the grand culmination. Everyone drank a l’chaim, and then the organizers asked for silence.
“We would like to ask everyone to speak for a few moments, and tell us, in a few sentences, what they feel they gained from this week,” came the request.
“The college students were very emotional as they described how their entire mindset and attitude changed,” recalled Mr. Raanan D’vir, an accountant from Monsey, (originally from South Africa.) “For some, it was their first introduction to observant Jews.
“My chavrusa confessed to me that he’d been afraid of black hat Jews. He even told me that if he’d be lost in an airport, he would rather approach a Muslim or a Hindu than an Orthodox Jew. He felt we were intimidating and condescending. ‘But now I see that you’re so normal, just like us,’ he told me. ‘It’s possible to be Orthodox, have a job, raise a wonderful family, and be a successful human being.’ I think spending a week together, doing ‘normal’ things and having their questions answered honestly made all the difference.”
During the banquet, one college student admitted that he was secretly afraid of heights, and the afternoon spent rappelling was a real challenge.
“I don’t think you’re afraid of heights,” his chavrusa rejoined. “Look how much you grew this week! Look how high you climbed!”
Soon it was Mr. Ephraim Vashosvky’s turn to speak. To everyone’s surprise, he was holding an embroidered tefillin sack.
“I would like to present this to my partner, Viktor,” said Ephraim. “He deserves it.”
The two men embraced, and the audience erupted into spontaneous and sustained applause.
After an intense week of learning and growth, Viktor had mentioned that he would love to own a pair of tefillin. Ephraim Vashovsky sensed that his partner’s desire was the real thing. Incredibly, he had purchased the tefillin during the week and ordered a personalized, embroidered tefillin case for his newfound friend.
Brother to brother. One Jew to another. Bringing nachas to Hashem in His Holy City, overlooking the Kotel HaMa’aravi.
According to Rabbi Yaakov Giniger, director of programming, who coordinated the Week of Inspiration, “Project Inspire is committed to activating the frum community to form a grassroots kiruv movement, reaching out to millions of unaffiliated and assimilated Jews in the United States and around the world.
After speaking to numerous participants of the program, it becomes obvious that it surpassed expectations.
“We thought we were going to give chizuk, yet we received tremendous chizuk at the same time,” added Mr. Goldstein. “The students were brilliant and incisive. They came up with powerful questions we never had the opportunity to ask. And it was our responsibility to help them find the answers.”
The mentors were paired up with one or two students for an intense learning session each morning. There were also opportunities for the ba’al habatim to learn on their own, while the students heard lectures from kiruv experts.
The remainder of the day, including davening, meals, traveling on the buses to their afternoon adventures, were spent together, dispelling stereotypes, getting to know each other.
The topics covered during this week of learning and growth were fascinating, generating intense discussion. Hot-button issues included the Torah perspective on plastic surgery, liability and honesty in business, the ethics of organ donation, the role of women in Judaism, and many other issues that were bothering the students.
The ba’al habatim, or mentors, were given the opportunity to confer with prominent rabbanim and roshei yeshiva, including Rav Asher Weiss of Ramot, Rav Yitzchok Berkowitz, Rav Hillel Weinberg, Rav Dovid Orlofsky, and prominent kiruv experts, to discuss their chavrusa’s questions and address any concerns.
What motivated these 24 businessmen to donate their time, energy and precious vacation week to spend a week mentoring young college students?
“I go to Eretz Yisrael every winter with a group of friends,” relayed Mr. Yossi Gleiberman. “This trip was so much more than I expected. It added a whole new dimension to my usual experience.”
Reb Yossi praised the event’s organizers for working overtime to take care of the logistics. “They truly did a wonderful job. The study sessions were superb, the meals were delicious, the accommodations deluxe. Most of all, though, the chance to get to know these brilliant young students and impact their lives was priceless. How often do you get to go jeeping with a Harvard guy who never saw a frum businessman before?
“Through learning together, they discovered that the Torah isn’t just a set of laws, of what you can and can’t do. The Torah is very careful with safeguarding people’s possessions, assets, and reputation. This meant a lot to the students.
“In my work environment, I encounter many Jewish coworkers who are completely unaffiliated. Now I feel so much more comfortable inviting them for Shabbos, reaching out to them after work hours. The intermarriage rate in the non-religious world is skyrocketing. It’s our responsibility to do all we can to prevent that.”
Mr. D’vir, a longtime kiruv activist, felt that this trip created tremendous bonds.
“My chavrusa wasn’t someone I would ordinarily strike up a conversation with,” he said. “Yet he was a very caring, sensitive young man who asked powerful questions. ‘How do you balance work and your religious obligations? How do you raise such a large family?’ It really got me thinking.”
“It wasn’t just about the learning, or the questions,” echoed Mr. Hillel Tropper. “It was about being friends with these young men, showing them you can be normal, and also Orthodox.”
Highlights of the program included Friday night davening at the Kosel, the Motzaei Shabbos kumzits, meals at high-end restaurants, wine tasting, and a memorable afternoon spent preparing food packages for the poor at Yad Eliezer. There was also an evening barbecue and ‘jam’ music session, with small, personal drums, and lebedig dancing.
For many, the afternoon spent hiking, rappelling down a mountain cliff, and zip-lining in Nachal Timarim, in the Dead Sea area, was a real treat. “It was very challenging for us middle-aged guys,” many participants recalled. “We weren’t used to such strenuous activities. Learning to rappel down a steep mountain—you gotta focus and concentrate, reach beyond your limits.”
Although all the participants have returned home to their families, jobs, and studies, their lives will never be the same again. They all exchanged phone numbers and plan to be in frequent contact. A New York based reunion is also possibly in the works.
“I’m planning to stay close to the boys I mentored,” said Mr. Gross. “It was a real bonding experience, and I want it to continue. You know, sometimes people are afraid of doing kiruv. But Hashem gives us siyata d’Shmaya. Let’s put it this way: we don’t have years of chinuch experience, yet we manage to raise our children, learning ‘on the job.’
“Ultimately, if you reach out with the right intentions, and are not afraid to ask shailos, to say you don’t know something but will find out, then you will be successful.”
“This program was life-changing for all,” commented Rabbi Chaim Sampson, director of Project Inspire. The ba’al habatim did an incredible job and impacted the lives of the students more than we had thought possible. It is truly amazing what caring about another Jew can do. Sometimes it takes reaching out to a less affiliated Jew to appreciate the profound beauty of the Torah life we live day to day. This brings home the point that we are truly all brothers, and that when we sincerely care about each other, it changes worlds… especially our own.”
For more information about future Project Inspire activities, or to become involved in this unique outreach program, please contact Rabbi Yaakov Giniger, at email@example.com or call 646-961-4961. v