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Jewish professionals and secular college students unite

Jewish professionals and secular college students unite

Ohr Somayach’s Mentors Mission

We are brothers!

By: Frimet Blum

What happens when a group of secular Jewish college students spends a week in Israel, together with Orthodox lawyers, financial officers and other professionals?
What happens when every moment of that week is filled with meaning and adventure?
What happens when a college student discovers the beauty of Gemarah - and gets hooked?

This July, some fifty college students joined Ohr Somayach’s Mentors’ Mission - and found that their lives were changed forever. The students, for the most part, were already part of Ohr Somayach’s Jewish Learning Experience (JLE), or J-Internship, an incredible program where professional growth merges with Torah study.

The Mentors’ Mission took the program one step further. It offered students the chance to spend an adventurous, magnificent week together with religious professionals - and thrust them into the Sea of Talmud.

Jumping into the deep end

“I’m in college and I’ve taken many classes, but this was my first venture deep into the Gemara,” said participant Josh Malinkovich. “We learned Bava Kama, all about loss and benefits and responsibility. I really got into it with my chavrusah (study partner).” This isn’t the first time Josh visited Israel. He’s participated in Birthright and other programs, and toured much of the country. But nothing touched him like the Mentors’ Mission - and the blatt Gemara.

“This week changed my life,” he said. It was a fully-immersive experience. Every day began with Torah study, learned from specially-designed packets curated for first-time learners, and continued with trips around the country. Every trip struck a chord. The Kosel. Kever Rachel. Chevron. Even adventurous tours, including extreme water sports at the Kineret, and a visit to Tiberias Hot Springs, took the group to places steeped in meaning and history.

Josh was so inspired by the mission; he’s enrolled in Ohr Somayach for the next semester, and says he can see himself living in Israel one day. That’s an incredible statement from a boy who grew up with almost no knowledge about Judaism. While he may not have grown up knowing much about Jewish history, he’s come a long way in a short time. This summer, he observed the Three Weeks, the period of mourning for the Beis Hamikdosh. He went so far as to abstain from shaving during the Nine Days, when the mourning is most intense.

“It was a big deal for me, because where I come from, we put so much emphasis on what we look like.” Still, he felt that the laws of mourning helped him connect to his past, and see himself as an integral and responsible member of the Jewish people.

Business People - Key to the Mission

Josh was fortunate to be paired with Rabbi Lipa Geldwerth, the Mentor’s Mission Scholar in Residence, and world-renowned Rav of Congregation Kol Torah in Brooklyn. While Rabbi Geldwerth is a rabbi, most of the mentors are prominent professionals who take a week off from work to engage Jewish souls, by serving as chavrusahs, study partners. Some mentors also offer to help fund the trip for their mentees; a fact that gives them great satisfaction.

On a trip that takes its participants to some of the most exquisite and adventurous places in Eretz Yisroel, and that includes five-star dining and entertainment, it’s the Torah study that sets it apart from other programs.

“Nothing does it like the Gemarah,” says Rabbi Geldwerth. When secular young men are exposed to the depth and beauty of Torah, the Jewish spark in their souls ignites. The fact that most of the mentors are businessmen is key to the success of the mission.

“The mentees boys don’t see themselves becoming rabbis. It’s too distant for them,” said Bentzy Schechter, Director of Mentors Mission Engagement. “But if they see that you don’t have to become a rabbi to be Shabbos observant, and learn Torah, and be extremely involved with a Torah lifestyle at work and at home, that speaks to them. The mentors showcase the vibrancy of Torah life.”

One participant in the Mentors’ Mission said that being exposed to professionals from every segment of the Orthodox Jewish world was a game-changer for him.

“I always thought that only Modern Orthodox Jews could be part of the business world,” he said. But on the Mentors’ Mission, he met businessmen from every stripe of the Torah world - from Modern Orthodox to yeshivish men coming from the most right-wing communities - whose commitment to Judaism and Torah study did not keep them from advancing in their careers. “I saw that you could be from any branch of Orthodoxy and be a doctor, a lawyer.”

The mentors are more than role models. They’re active participants who really get into the experience. “We probably gain more from the mentees than they do from us,” says Mentor Yaakov Gerber, Senior Graphic Designer at BLMG. The sentiment was echoed by virtually every person who joined the trip as a mentor.

“My wife and have been on over a dozen missions, and each one is unique and special,” said Dr. Jonathan Lewin. Just weeks after the trip, they’ve already continued connecting to their mentees.

“We had one at our house for dinner last week,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be part of a movement which is educating, uniting, and bring the Nation of Israel closer to its national purpose.”

Lots of questions. Great answers.

When intelligent college students are exposed to Torah, they understandably have questions. It’s incredible to watch faces light up with understanding and awe at the infinite scope of Torah. Sruly Shain and his mentee were fortunate to be sitting at the same table as Ohr Somayach’s Rabbi Breitowitz, who addressed every one of the mentee’s queries.

“You could see the clarity he was gaining as we spent more time together,” he said. “Fast forward to yesterday. He arrived home to Florida, and already reached out to the local rabbi to help him kasher his kitchen.” Sruly, the COO of LTC Ally, and his mentee will be learning together on Sunday mornings, each week.

Mentor Eli Willner adds –

“The Mentors’ Missions have become a highlight of my life. I had two mentees for this mission. The three of us bonded as if we were brothers - and in fact, we are brothers.”

His mentees were obviously inspired. One decided to stay on in Ohr Somayach; the other went home with tzitzis, a yarmulke and tefillin. Both plan to continue learning over Zoom with their newfound chavrusah, who is a chief technologist at a medical supply firm. The transformation is quite dramatic – and the mentors take great joy in being part of it.

“I love witnessing the growth of my mentees, from the first day to the last day,” said Mentor Sammy Simnegar, a portfolio manager at Fidelity. But though the transformation in the mentees is obvious, the mentors experience their own dramatic growth. Mentors see the beauty of Torah and Yiddishkeit through the eyes of a newcomer.

People who grew up with Torah and mitzvos can take the beauty and blessings of Jewish life for granted - and could even fall into the trap of barely putting thought into daily mitzvos. But when they watch mentees experience Shabbos or don tzitzis for the first time, it opens their own eyes to the beauty of our heritage.

When mentees ask questions, their chavrusos find themselves thinking much more deeply into fundamentals of Yiddishkeit - and to actually research and find out more. It takes their own Yiddishkeit to new heights. It’s a phenomenal experience, at every level.

“It’s the best of ruchniyus and gashmiyus,” Mentor Robert Aberman says. “A blend of spiritual and material highs. A trip to Israel, going back to yeshiva, fun tourist activity, and getting to know, learn with and inspire a new generation of young men looking to discover and grow in Judaism.”

Exotic. Exquisite. An Existence-Pondering Experience.

Ohr Somayach spares no effort in making the trip over the top. From exotic adventures to five-star dining to entertainment, every moment is a treat to remember forever. Mr. Aberman put the experience into one line:

“Learning, touring, food, wine - all while doing a mitzvah!” he said. The fact that Mr. Aberman is Senior Vice President of Dialyze Direct, a major medical supply company, only makes his commitment to learning more impressive to the mentees.

Mathew Anczarki, a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, recalled the moments that most touched him.

“Shabbat at the Wall. There was such joyous singing. That was out there for me. It was a really cool experience.” He also was excited about the chance to visit Chevron, Bethlehem, and the Kineret; places he hadn’t visited on previous trips to Israel. And the music, including Chassidic singers whose existence was a surprise to him, touched him deeply.

The Torah study was, without a doubt, a highlight of the trip. The organizers of the mission make a special effort to pair the mentees with professionals in their own fields of study. Whenever possible, a law student will be paired with a lawyer; a medical student will be paired with a medical professional; and so on. One of the mentees described what it meant for him to see professionals who make Torah study a part of their lives.

“I got a real experience of what it means to live in the world and learn Torah,” he said. “It’s not what you think, that you lock yourself in a room and sit and pray all day.” Rabbi Zecharya Fruchthandler, who has been part of the Mentors’ Mission for twenty years, says -

“There are other kiruv programs out there. A student could just as easily go on Birthright. But the pintele Yid, the Jewish spark, must be burning brighter in those who join our mission. They’re attracted to Torah.” And Torah sells itself. As does a Torah lifestyle. Which is why Ohr Somayach’s path to observance goes through the Torah.

A large number of participants are so enamored; they enroll in yeshiva, or in one of Ohr Somayach’s other programs. Josh Malinkovich is taking part in J-Internship, Ohr Somayach’s internship program. He is studying bio engineering in college, and is interning at a major Israeli biometrics company, where he spends several hours each day learning. He is enrolled in Ohr Somayach for the next semester.

Rabbi Geldwerth compares the effect of one page of Gemarah after another to the famous analogy of drops of water on rock.

“It’s like Rabbi Akiva. Every single word of Torah from our mentors creates an indentation. It opens hearts.” In a world where assimilation and intermarriage are destroying branches of Klal Yisroel, Ohr Somayach is at the forefront, ensuring that the power of Torah continues to affect hearts, for generations to come.

To get involved, sponsor a student, or learn more about Ohr Somayach’s efforts to save Klal Yisroel, contact

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