This week we celebrated Tu B’Shevat, which marks the new year for trees. The Talmud explains (Rosh HaShanah 14a, Rashi ad loc.) that Shevat was chosen as the commencement date for the halachic year for trees with regard to the tithing of fruit, since by Tu B’Shevat most of the winter rain has already fallen and the sap of the trees begins to rise, setting in motion the rebirth of the trees after the winter season.
During the winter, we look at the landscape and see trees bereft of their leaves, snow covering a frozen ground, and a world without the color of flowers and vegetation. That is winter; a time when the ground seems to have died, and the flora appears to have perished. However, beneath the surface, behind that veil of stillness and seeming lifelessness, organisms are thriving, and the natural processes are ongoing that will produce the spring rebirth and the fruit of the coming season.
On Tu B’Shevat, the cold wind may still be blowing outside, and rain and snow may be falling, but the sap within the tree is moving, and the tree is preparing for the annual debut of buds, flowers, and fruit.
This is a remarkable lesson not only concerning trees but for many aspects of life as well. What may appear dormant and lifeless in fact harbors an inner vibrancy that is just biding its time until it flowers and brings forth its fruit.
This same process is often demonstrated by the youth of our generation. Our teens are too often judged to be apathetic and uninterested, and their desire for growth and spirituality is often questioned. We think we see a wintry generation; cold, distant, uninterested in their heritage, spiritually lifeless.
But like the trees on Tu B’Shevat, beneath the exterior are vibrant, pulsating souls that yearn to grow and to connect to their heritage and to God. With the right opportunities, with the right nourishment, motivation, and inspiration, the wellsprings of the neshamah gush forth. Often the transformation can occur in days, like the new buds that suddenly appear on the trees, literally overnight.
A few weeks ago, NCSY – the OU’s teen program of education and outreach – hosted its annual and legendary Yarchei Kallah. Teens from across the country chose to give up their normal winter break pursuits; instead of spending time in pure recreation, they convened for spiritual re-creation. For five days, these public school students left their world behind them and entered an environment of davening, learning, and spiritual growth – an atmosphere that can only be described as transformative.
This year’s Yarchei Kallah was the largest ever, attended by 380 teens, with many more on a waiting list. The vibrancy of the Yiddishe neshamah was apparent as these young men and women joined together in exploration of Jewish learning and experience, and sang and prayed with passion and excitement.
This year’s theme was Jewish prayer, and the NCSYers studied, in the most creative of ways, the berachot of the Shemoneh Esrei. Aside from the traditional learning model, the program included the use of innovative educational techniques, including music, art, and drama. In one magnificent creation, the teens joined together to produce nineteen large canvases, each one depicting, through creative artwork, another berachah of the Amidah.
For the first time, NCSY invited a group of adults to come study alongside the teens, to inspire and to be inspired. And in another first for Yarchei Kallah, highlights of the program were broadcast live via the Internet, allowing parents, friends, and teens who couldn’t attend in person to still be part of this great experience and gain inspiration from what was happening many miles away.
Together with OU President Moishe Bane and other distinguished guests, I had the pleasure of joining the teens for Shabbos in what was an incredibly uplifting and inspiring experience. The davening, the meals, the singing, the divrei Torah, all provided a tremendous appreciation for the vigor and vitality of our youth, and the incredible dedication of the NCSY staff as they tapped into that wellspring of yearning for greater involvement in Yiddishkeit and sought to make it grow and thrive.
For many teens, attending Yarchei Kallah not only reconnects them to their community and their Jewish heritage, it also changes their long-term trajectory of Jewish learning and identity. Many teens continue on to our summer programs and go to Israel to study in a variety of yeshivot, seminaries, and gap year programs. They are forever changed by the critical decision they made to spend their vacation days at Yarchei Kallah.
It is a constant source of amazement to me how just a few days spent in an environment of traditional learning of Jewish text, surrounded by extraordinary caring and inspiring educators, can ignite the latent flame of Yiddishkeit inside each of our precious teens. Yarchei Kallah is truly a testament to the vibrancy and spiritual aspirations of our Jewish teens. Not all will become frum – at least not yet – but each is transformed.
Exposure to text and learning, to the joy of Shabbos, to the power of prayer and song, elevates even the most apathetic and disinterested. When given the right setting and opportunities to connect to their tradition, the creativity and excitement that is buried inside bursts forth.
Like the trees on Tu B’Shevat, beneath the façade of lifelessness lies a vibrant flow of energy and spiritual yearning, and it is our duty to tap into that reservoir and ensure that every Jewish teen is given the opportunities to connect and to grow – and for their aspirations to bloom.