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Torah Academy of Bergen County students participate in life-changing OU relief mission to Israel

“Once I got the call, there was no question that I would go,” says 12th-grader Josh Schneider of Staten Island, N.Y. “I think if you get an option to go to Israel, you have to say ‘yes’ immediately.”

Gathered at a Tzur Hadassah army base are (from left) TABC associate principal Rabbi Steven Finkelstein, TABC students, Israeli soldiers and director of OU Relief Missions Rabbi Ethan Katz (second from right). Credit: Courtesy.
Gathered at a Tzur Hadassah army base are (from left) TABC associate principal Rabbi Steven Finkelstein, TABC students, Israeli soldiers and director of OU Relief Missions Rabbi Ethan Katz (second from right). Credit: Courtesy.

Among the numerous heroes eight Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) high school students said they met on a recent trip to Israel with OU Relief Missions, the patients at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan who suffered critical injuries made the greatest impression. Not because of the life-altering trauma they sustained but because of their incredible strength and optimism.

People like Amichai Schindler from Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on the Gaza border, whose hands were blown off by Hamas terrorists on Simchat Torah as he struggled to hold his family’s bomb shelter door closed.

Amichai and his wife, Avital, told 11th- and 12th-graders Yonatan Brothman, Jonah Miller, Aron Major, Benny Zelig, Aryeh Eizikovitz, Eytan Kirschenbaum, Dani Needle and Josh Schneider that they don’t focus on what they’ve lost, but rather on what they have—their lives, their land and their ability to serve Hashem. Amichai’s only challenge now, he maintained, is to determine his new purpose in life.

Then there were the numerous Israeli soldiers injured and recovering at Tel Hashomer, some of whom had lost their legs in battle.

“On behalf of the teens, I asked these soldiers if they would do it all over again,” says the director of OU Relief Missions Rabbi Ethan Katz, who co-organized the trip and accompanied the boys along with TABC associate principal Rabbi Steven Finkelstein. “Not only did they say they would absolutely do it again, they encouraged the boys to make aliyah and to join the army. Every person we met spoke about having no regrets. It really impacted the teens.”

Rabbi Ethan Katz and TABC students Dani Needle, Aryeh Eizikovitz, Benny Zelig, Eytan Kirschenbaum, Aron Major, Josh Schneider and Jonah Miller discuss what it means to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Credit: Courtesy.

‘We just wanted to be there at this time’

Despite briefing the students extensively about what they might expect to see and feel on the five-day December mission, both rabbis agree that no amount of advance preparation could have adequately gotten the students ready for this experience.

“One of the things that was so powerful and may have helped the boys to cope with the hardship they witnessed was the lens through which those suffering from traumas recounted their stories with resolve and determination,” says Rabbi Finkelstein, who also runs a social-work practice.

“Every person we met, whether it was soldiers who lost limbs or a bereaved mother who lost a son in battle, had this overall sense that they have a mission that is greater than themselves. The entire country just seems focused on what has to happen—whether it was a soldier guarding the border in eastern Jerusalem saying that he has to be there to defend everyone, or a family from Sderot who chooses to return to live there so the rest of the country will be safe, every life decision that these people are making is with a sense of purpose. The people who went through trauma aren’t allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with grief, and their courage pushed us to follow the tone they set.”

TABC was the first high school in North America to participate in an OU Relief Mission to Israel for teens, an initiative spearheaded by TABC rosh yeshiva Rabbi Joshua Kahn, executive director Judah Rosenbaum and Finkelstein.

“As a school and as a community, we are all feeling the pull to be in Israel,” says Finkelstein. “We just wanted to be there at this time, even for just a few days. I couldn’t imagine that there would be anything more powerful for these Jewish teenagers than to feel the unity in Israel during this period, and they really experienced it.”

Having participated in past OU Relief Missions to Texas, New Orleans and Romania, where they helped Jewish Ukrainian refugees, the rabbi says TABC approached Katz and asked him to co-run the Israel mission because the school knew from experience that the OU would provide an excellent, meaningful and highly professional experience.

From left: At Tzur Hadassah army base, TABC students Aryeh Eizikovitz and Yonatan Brothman, along with Rabbi Steven Finkelstein, make a barbecue in celebration of the sheva brachot of Amichai and Avital Schindler. Credit: Courtesy.

‘I wish I could have been there for a longer time’

The eight students from New Jersey and New York were selected to attend the school-subsidized mission because they have been actively involved in school-wide Israel relief efforts since Simchat Torah, including clothing packing, tzedakah drives and letter-writing campaigns.

“Once I got the call, there was no question that I would go,” says 12th-grader Josh Schneider of Staten Island, N.Y. “I think if you get an option to go to Israel, you have to say ‘yes’ immediately. For five days, we went from one activity to another. It was hard work, but we weren’t thinking about ourselves. We were thinking about what happened in Israel and how we could make an impact. We were also representing everybody from America and I thought about my friends who would also have loved this opportunity. I would do it 100 times more. I wish I could have been there for a longer time.”

Eleventh-grader Dani Needle of Passaic, N.J., wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when he committed to attending the mission.

“I didn’t know what the environment and culture would be like in Israel,” he says. “It’s a crazy idea to think that everyone is running to a war zone just to help out. But once I was there, I felt, how can I not be here? Especially when you hear from soldiers who have lost limbs that they would do it over again.”

Twelfth-grader Eytan Kirschenbaum of Bergenfield, N.J., has been sending a daily newsletter update to the student body about the situation in Israel since the start of the war. Prior to his departure, he had heard many sad stories which led him to believe that the mood in Israel was overwhelmingly somber.

“Once I got there and saw everything in person,” he says, “it was much more meaningful. Some of the sad stories were more inspiring, like the injured soldiers we met who said they wouldn’t hesitate to serve the country again. I also found it safer in Israel, even though it’s wartime. In America, there are so many people against us, especially on social media. When you’re in Israel, everyone’s on the same team. No one is going to approach you on the street and threaten you because you’re Jewish.”

Aron Major of Teaneck, N.J., also in 12th grade, felt similarly.

“You could definitely tell that there is a war going, but people aren’t mourning the whole time,” he says. “Even though many are in pain, they are translating that pain into optimism. Everyone was very friendly to us and happy that we were there. It was a very unique trip—one we never experienced in our lifetime.”

The mission itinerary included packing boxes of food for families at a nonprofit in Rishon Letzion and beef jerky for Israeli soldiers at an organization in Ramat Bet Shemesh; a stop in Tel Aviv, where they met families of hostages and lit candles; a visit to the Gordon family in Jerusalem sitting shiva for their son, Naftali, who was killed in active duty; a meeting with Jen Airly, whose son Binyamin was killed in battle; preparing cucumber vines for new planting in a greenhouse; leading a Chanukah carnival for evacuees from Neve Ilan in the south; holding a barbecue for a couple celebrating their sheva brachot at an army base in Tzur Hadassa; and connecting with hundreds of young evacuees from Sderot and Kfar Maimon at two Jerusalem hotels over Shabbat.

From left: At Neve Ilan, Yonatan Brothman, Aryeh Eizikovitz, Jonah Miller, Dani Needle, Eytan Kirschenbaum, Aron Major, Josh Schneider and Benny Zelig ran a carnival for evacuees from Sderot. Credit: Courtesy.

‘They were wowed by every aspect’

The contingent also brought 300 thermal shirts and protein bars for soldiers, as well as toys and games, to distribute at the hotels, which they purchased with funds collected from TABC tzedakah drives.

Now back in the United States, the boys are processing what they experienced with teachers and peers. Some have spoken about the mission in their respective classes and all will be sharing stories at a school-wide assembly.

“The most important lesson I took home from the trip,” says Aron Major, “Is that no matter what type of background you have, as Jews we always come together during tragedies, and at the end of the day, we’re stronger together.”

The teens, and all of the TABC community, remain committed to aiding Israel moving forward.

“These eight students are now charged with continuing letter-writing campaigns and initiating new tzedakah drives—whatever really needs to be done and whatever we can do from here,” says Finkelstein. “They are creating a plan to start work on different projects.”

Reflecting on the mission, Katz says it was highly successful: “It was the most moving experience for these students. The kids believe that their entire lives have been changed. They were wowed by every aspect. As difficult as many parts were, the boys stepped up to the plate.”

For Finkelstein, two particular incidents highlight the teens’ engagement and exemplify the extent to which they rose to the occasion.

“We were at a falafel restaurant in Modi’in for lunch. A sign said that chayalim and security forces members eat for free, and the restaurant will match donations from anyone who sponsors a falafel. The boys eagerly pooled as much of their money as they could to support the endeavor.”

He is equally proud of the students’ unique request on Motzei Shabbat ahead of their flight home.

“After spending hours at a hotel on Shabbat engaging with children and teens—much longer than we had originally anticipated to stay—I had planned to take the boys out for a final dinner before we went to the airport,” recounts Rabbi Finkelstein. “As we were about to leave, they said they still had a bunch of toys and games that they hadn’t yet distributed and asked if we could skip the dinner and return to the hotel to hand them out. They were able to move past themselves, and most importantly, to realize and appreciate the power they have, even in some small way, to impact the lives around them.”

Dani Needle says that he and his friends felt that returning to the hotel was the most appropriate way to end the trip.

“When we left, we felt bad because our job wasn’t done yet,” he says. “There are still kids at the hotel who need someone to play with. I now understand the degree to which everyone there needed and still needs help. Even though we’re back here, we still feel like we’re in Israel right now. Part of us is still there. To have had that opportunity was amazing.”

###

CONTACT:

Rabbi Ethan Katz

Director, OU Relief Missions

(646) 459-5142

katze@ou.org

About OU Relief Missions

OU Relief Missions is regarded as the largest teen relief missions program dedicated to chessed, instilling Jewish values and identity, personal empowerment, and learning through service. Over 4,000 teens have made an impact through service in over 20 destinations worldwide. In 2023, OU Relief Missions expanded their chessed opportunities to college and graduate students, young professionals, communities, synagogues, and retirees.

About the Orthodox Union

Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
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