This time of year has amazed me for the longest time. The weather turns colder, the days are so very short, and yet everyone is out and about searching to find the best sales for the best gift. We call it the holiday season, and it may well be a season; but if a “holiday” is, as the English say, a vacation, I think we’ve missed the boat. But this is not what I am referring to. I am referring to the annual National NCSY Yarchei Kallah.
Yarchei Kallah has been around for decades. As an alumnus, I am sure you either attended Yarchei Kallah or have at least heard about it from a friend. Hundreds of Jewish teens from public high schools spanning the entire country, converge in Stamford, Connecticut every year for the entire last week of December. That mere fact alone would cause one to, as the Haggadah says, say “Dayenu” (enough!). However, in this case, there is much more going on than just a whole bunch of teenagers hanging out. As you are reading this article, there are 280 public high school students spending their precious winter break learning Torah. And this is not watered down Torah—they are studying actual Torah texts with top level educators from near and far. A number of them are here from the various post-high school Yeshivas and seminaries in Israel. Though many years and many different programs have come and gone from the NCSY calendar, Yarchei Kallah still remains one of the most powerful, impactful programs of the OU.
As we counted down the days for this highly anticipated gathering of public school teens and top-notch Jewish educators, unfortunate news broke out about a little town called Newton some forty miles away from Stamford. Very quickly our nation, which had barely ever heard from this tiny town, was meeting everyone from the mayor, to the policeman, to the regular man walking down the street. This unthinkable tragedy, twenty children and six teachers were gunned down in what every parent and educator strive to make the safest place in the world for our young innocent children—their school.
This devastation led me back to another place and time in recent history. The year was 1974 and the location was Northern Israel. Three Palestinian terrorists snuck into a small school and took one hundred and fifteen people hostage. Two days later, twenty-five Israelis were murdered, including twenty-two students. This massacre, like Newtown, hit its nation like a ton of bricks! People in Israel still speak in a low voice today, almost forty years later, when the events of the town are even mentioned. I, like many of you, am quite familiar with the town’s story. It was memorialized every year at Long Island NCSY’s Spring Regional Convention. The region was actually named Maalot to commemorate the town that suffered those unthinkable acts of terrorism. I, like many others, felt then and still feel now that when each NCSY’er grows as a Jew, it is an enduring and everlasting tribute to those young boys and girls of Maalot who were struck down at such a young age.
I would like to connect that thought with the recent events of Newtown and say that these NCSY teenagers who are gathering in the state of Connecticut this week are simultaenously carrying the torch for these young boys and girls who were murdered in Newtown.
Michael Pozner, age fifteen, brother to Noah (6), one of the neshamot (souls) taken this past month in Newtown, spoke movingly at his brothers funeral. Michael shared this thought: “’I take comfort in knowing that Noah is free, he has gone home,’” said Michael. ‘Let us not be lost in sorrow. Let us live our lives as happily and righteously as we can. We can better ourselves as people for Noah, celebrate his life, and live for him. When we’re all called home, we will see him again. We did not lose our Noah, we gained a guardian angel.’”
The NCSY-ers at Yarchei Kallah will “celebrate Noah’s life” this week by grabbing hold of the etz chaim (tree of life), which is compared to the learning of Hashem’s Torah, that Noah never got a chance to learn.
Have a wonderful and inspiring month,
Rabbi Yehoshua Marchuck