My Experience on Torah Tours and Why You Should Do It Too
“Your brother is going to be in PHX for Simchat Torah.”
My brother Dovid forwarded me this text along with an accompanying “What?” I hadn’t actually informed my siblings that I was doing Torah Tours, because it still hadn’t really registered with me. My brother heard about it from his friend who lives in Phoenix, and reached out to me to confirm it. Up until that moment, it hadn’t really hit me just what I had signed up for, but from this point on it was really “real.”
The Aaron and Blanche Schreiber Torah Tours program is an initiative that sends YU students to different communities around the United States and Canada for Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, and sometimes Shavuot. These students help their community in many ways, including with holiday prayers, programming and adding to the festive atmosphere. The community gets a few students to help out, and the students get to visit a community that they have probably never visited before.
Torah Tours was something I had known about for several years. Two of my rebbeim in Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah, which I attended in my gap year, had participated in the program during their time at YU and spoke about it fondly even years later. When I saw the email announcing it for Simchat Torah, I knew I had to sign up.
While we didn’t get to choose which community we would be visiting, I requested to be sent to a community outside of the New York area. I ended up in the group going to the Beth Joseph shul in Phoenix, Arizona with one Wilf and two Beren students. After a brief meeting where YU faculty involved in Torah Tours — David Mitzner Community Dean for Values and Leadership Rabbi Ari Rockoff, Program Director of the Office of Torah and Spiritual Life Haviva Tirschwell and Program Administrator for Undergraduate Torah Studies Rabbi Herschel Hartz — went over some basic guidelines with us we were put in touch with the community and basically told us to have fun.
Transportation to and from Phoenix was arranged by the Rebbetzin Rachel and Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs, the rebbetzin and rabbi of the shul. We flew into Phoenix on Thursday, two days before Yom Tov. That night, the shul had a “Meat and Greet” event, a barbeque where we had the opportunity to meet various members of the community, introduce ourselves and give shiurim to the teens. Afterward, we went with kids and teens to Bam Kazam, which is a combination between an escape room and an obstacle course. We all had an incredible time together and it was really fun to meet the kids of the community.
Friday was spent preparing for Yom Tov. The Jewish community in Phoenix is large and vibrant and therefore they were not so reliant on us to make a minyan or lead in services. Instead, they asked us to focus on improving the ruach of the shul during the Simchat Torah dancing, running activities and playing games with children to assist in encouraging their participation in shul. We planned it all out and then got ready for the chag to start.
Shemini Atzeret was very nice. We had dinner together at the Rabbi’s house along with what felt like half of the community (but was “only” about 30 people). It was just cool interacting with so many different kinds of people, whether it was the rabbi and rebbetzin, older members of the community, younger members who had just moved in or teens who had grown up there. During the day we ran a small Jeopardy game for the teens, which was a relaxing and fun activity for everyone involved.
Unfortunately, not unlike many communities' celebration of Simchat Torah this year, ours was quite unusual. Before we started hakafot, we began hearing that something was going on in Israel, but we had no idea how bad it truly was. We started off by saying a few perakim of Tehillim. We then moved into the dancing, where we tried to help everyone enjoy Yom Tov despite the worrying news. The dancing itself was very nice, and the community was fully involved. After davening, the entire community stayed at the shul to have dinner together. Although we ate at a table with the teenagers, I had the incredible opportunity to walk around and talk with different members of the community. I got to meet one of my mother’s friends from her time in Stern College, as well as the parents of one of my friends.
Hakafot on Simchat Torah day was very lively, filled with unique experiences. I was able to convince some boys to join in the dancing and had the opportunity to lain for the first time when we broke up into smaller groups to allow everyone to receive an aliyah. This was especially meaningful for me as I had never done it before, and getting to do it during this trip felt incredible.
I’m so grateful to the Phoenix community and YU for giving me the opportunity to participate in Torah Tours. The community is one of the most incredible ones I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The people were all so nice, and seeing the community interact so nicely with us and with each other was remarkable to experience. I genuinely hope to have the chance to go back at some point, and am thankful for this opportunity.
That brings me to two final questions: Would I do Torah Tours again? Would I recommend it to others? The answer is easily “yes!” Torah Tours provides one the opportunity to visit other Jewish communities and help them while hopefully enjoying yourself. You have the chance to have fun while also participating in something very meaningful. While I understand not wanting to spend some of your vacation off of school in a different community, I think it’s something very worthwhile. I hope that you will consider participating in Torah Tours as well!
Photo Caption: Torah Tours provides a unique experience, says the writer
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University