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Giving and Receiving - Torah Tours 2014

“Nowhere but here” signs made their way all over North America and Canada this past Simchat Torah, as almost three hundred Yeshiva University students embarked on The Center for the Jewish Future’s Aaron and Blanche Schreiber Torah Tours 2014 program. Running for over four decades now, this year’s Torah Tours program spanned cities from California to Quebec, Canada, sending students to fifty two Jewish communities. Split up into groups of four to eight, the students shared words of Torah, ran youth programming, and added ruach, bringing holiday simcha to their respective communities.

While the program itself only lasted the three day holiday, preparations began much earlier. Lauren Elefant, Program Manager at the Office of Student Life and Assistant Director of Torah Tours, described the arduous planning involved in creating a successful program. “We begin the process about 6 months in advance,” said Elefant. “We prepare the application, email the shuls, update the website, and reach out to the students. It is a very intricate process.”

The groups typically consist of three Wilf campus students and three Beren campus students, formed based on requests. On September 16th, the eager participants came together for the first time at the Torah Tours Orientation. There, Aliza Abrams, now in her ninth year spearheading the Torah Tours program - though her first under her new role as Beren Campus Director of Student Life - gave the opening remarks and preparatory guidelines for the trip. The students were also given source material for shiurim and strategies for leading youth groups at the Orientation’s preparatory sessions.

And then, off they went, some driving cars and others boarding planes, but all ready to make a difference. “Going in, it’s hard to know what it’s going to be like,” said first time Torah Tours participant, sophomore Yosef Robin. “When I arrived [in Providence, Rhode Island], however, I was shocked to find myself not only giving, sharing words of Torah and adding to the ruach, but also really receiving, feeling a part of a community that I connected to.”

Many students shared similar sentiments to Robin, surprised by the relationships they built and the power of their own impact. This seemed especially true for fellow sophomore Jacob Lazaros, who, with his team, literally made the minyan at Congregation Children of Israel in Youngstown, Ohio. “You look around and realize that their chag couldn't happen without you. Explaining the rituals and enhancing their services, I felt empowered, that I was truly doing something important,” continued Lazaros. This was Jacob’s first time on Torah Tours and is sure he will return in the future.

Now, only a month after Simchat Torah, the program has already received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from the students and communities involved.

“The eight YU students who joined our community added so much Ruach to our Shul's Simchas Torah,” expressed Rabbi Akiva Males from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's Kesher Israel Congregation. “Each one showed our community that it is indeed possible to be a promising college student while simultaneously pursuing a serious Jewish education. Their excitement about Torah and Mitzvos was contagious and warmed our Shul members' hearts.”

The Torah Tours program provides YU students with the chance to take all they’ve learned and spread it beyond themselves. It allows for what Elefant sees as “a great opportunity for students to teach and learn with community members in a way they may not often have a chance to.” Abrams added that “The ability to share our students with Jewish communities across North America benefits everyone involved with the program. Communities gain from our students ruach, teachings, and overall presence. The students gain from the experience of teaching, seeing new communities, and taking on the responsibility of being michazeik [strengthening] a community. It is truly a Kiddush Hashem, one which I hope will continue for many years to come."

Perhaps Stern student Michelle Sabbagh, who went to Westmount, Quebec for Torah Tours this year, put it best. “I didn't completely understand why I was sent to Westmount until I had the chance to interact with the congregants of the community,” explained Sabbagh. “I realized Torah Tours isn’t solely about delivering  divrei torah or bringing your dance moves to hakafot; its about creating bonds and learning from people that are similar and yet so different from you. It’s through these personal connections that you make on Torah Tours that leave a lasting impact on the community and on yourself.”