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Next Mission: July 2-7, 2024

Knotting tzitzis to knotty Gemaras

Knotting tzitzis to knotty Gemaras

Ohr Somayach’s Wartime Mentor Mission:
More essential than ever

Travis, a student at the University of Wisconsin, is in Israel for the first time. He’s learning how to don tefillin – in Tel Hashomer hospital, where he’s visiting wounded soldiers. He wraps the straps around his arms and makes the brachah – and the soldiers answer “Amen.”

Question: How did an unaffiliated American college student end up donning tefillin in an Israeli hospital?
Answer: The Ohr Somayach Mentors Mission.

The events of October 7th affected not only Israel. They unleashed a wave of antisemitism here in the US. And nowhere has this dark underbelly of American Jew hatred been more pronounced than on college campuses.

Shockingly, our all-American Jewish students, who always blended in to the general culture around them, face blatant hatred and discrimination. Their world changed in an instant. Many feel alone and disconnected, with no real sense of community or purpose. That leaves them searching for their roots. One student said –

(Continued from SPARKS newsletter)

“If I’m going to be called names and spit on for being Jewish, then I guess I’d better learn what ‘being Jewish’ means.”

But how?

For nearly 20 years, Ohr Somayach has been sponsoring and directing the Mentors Mission, a bi-annual kiruv program where learned baalei batim from the US and Canada travel to Israel with college students, and spend time learning and exploring the land.

“With the current situation, we weren’t sure we would have any applicants at all this year”, notes Rabbi Tully Bryks, Ohr Somayach’s Director of Student Recruitment and Mentor Liaison. “We figured that university students and mentors would be hesitant to travel to Israel. But we got a record number of participants. Secular students were clamoring to come and connect to their Jewish roots.”

Some students who have friends in Israel felt compelled to join. Jason, from the University of Texas, and Edan, from U of Illinois, both had friends who were shot. The war is very real to them.

The sudden awakening on campuses, combined with the cancellation of the winter Birthright trip, set the stage for Ohr Somayach.

Ohr Somayach is known for spreading Torah through real, in-the-bais-medrash, textual learning. The Mentors Mission follows that approach. Under the direction of Rav Yitzchok Breitowitz, the mentors teach students who are new to learning Gemara.

Brandon, from Buffalo, New York, joined the mission after he was vilified and attacked on social media, for coming to observe a pro-Palestinian protest on campus. It was the first time he experienced real anti-semitism. He notes:

“I was hesitant to join this trip because I thought it would be too religious. But it turns out, I love learning!” Brandon hopes to get some of his university friends to join, too.

Noam, a mentee from Arizona State University, was motivated to join because his best friend is, tragically, one of the hostages. The Gemara learned on the mission, on the sugya of Pidyon Shvuyim, the redemption of captives, touched him deeply.

Longtime mentor Rabbi Ovadia Kranz of Lakewood points out:

“This year, we not only had the opportunity to learn with the students, but we were able to connect them to Yiddishkeit by giving – by volunteering all over Eretz Yisroel”.

“We learned how to make tzitzis”, says Elijah from Berkely, CA. “I had no idea how intricate the process is, the wrapping and tying and reciting the blessing. It was cool!”

“I taught my new friend and mentee, Zach from Tampa, to tie tzitzis,” says Rabbi Nacham Josephs, a first-time mentor from Lakewood, “It was a special experience to make them and then to actually deliver them that very night to a grateful Chayal on a base.” As Rabbi Bryks told the hundreds of soldiers who proudly tried on their new army-green tzitzis:

“These are spiritual bullet-proof vests!” After the tzitzis-giving, mentors and mentees served the soldiers a lavish barbecue, followed by a night of dancing and singing, accompanied by Ohr Somayach’s band.
Arm in arm, successful professionals, American college students, and brave chayalim in uniform danced together – true brothers whose bond spans continents and lifestyles.
As one soldier pleaded: “This achdut is what we need now. Please. Don’t let this war be for nothing.”

Mentors Mission participants cemented their relationship, by volunteering throughout the country: They worked with Israeli farmers who once lived in Gush Katif, visited the wounded at Tel HaShomer Hospital, and more. One poignant moment was when the Mission participants formed a circle with some of the injured and sang “acheinu” together.

For the mentors, the overwhelming takeaway is that they gained even more than they gave. For the mentees, this trip was just the beginning. Elijah from Berkeley has already committed to eight months in Yeshiva, and Aaron of Rutgers to four months. And Zach from Tampa, who already learned for two months in the summer, returned for this trip. He’s made some significant changes in his life, and as he continues to work on his Hebrew reading, he pushes ahead in his newfound passion of learning Gemara.

The morning after the late-night goodbye banquet, when most of the mentors were already on their way home, Zach discovered that his mentor was staying one more day. He joined him early the next morning for netz at the Kosel. Arriving back at yeshiva, despite being exhausted, Zach turned to his mentor and asked: “Can we just start a new Gemara and learn one more time before you leave?”

One more time. One more shtikel Gemara. One more neshama ignited - for generations.

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