Some of the thoughts we generally associate with Shavuot relate to the tradition of learning Torah all night or the almost overwhelming amount of dairy food that is consumed over the course of the two-day holiday. It has become a routine, something we do every year as the weather starts turning warmer and our Sefirat HaOmer calendars come to an end.
Last year’s Shavuot, however, broke the sense of a familiar routine for me. I traveled to Washington D.C. in June with a team of three other students from Yeshiva University who were participating in The Aaron and Blanche Schreiber Torah Tours program.
Run by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, Torah Tours sends students to various Jewish communities across America for Shavuot and Simchat Torah to assist in creating a positive Torah-filled atmosphere.
My team was fortunate enough to be able to spend Shavuot in D.C. with Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue. Aside from boasting a beautiful large building in the Shepherd Park area, Ohev Sholom is known as being the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the area. Under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, it has experienced increasing growth and popularity.
Since it was my first time participating in a Torah Tours program, I was not quite sure what to expect. It was also my first time spending Shavuot in a community other than my own. Being immersed in a specific type of community for years has a bit of an insulating effect. You get used to things being done in a certain way, you know exactly what is required of you in order to blend in seamlessly, and you already have some expectations formed in your own head of what a community is or should be, based on your limited experience. That Shavuot was a chance to go beyond that, to look past the narrow confines of my own life and my limited experience.
One of the things that stood out about Ohev Sholom and its community was the incredible warmth and hospitality of those who invited us into their homes, and the genuine friendliness and openness exhibited towards complete strangers. No matter where I went or at whose house I was, I always felt perfectly comfortable and at home.
While the rest of my Torah Tours team returned home after Shavuot, I decided to remain in DC for Shabbat. I realized once it ended what an amazing decision that had been. Shabbat in Ohev Sholom was unlike any I have ever experienced in my hometown, beginning with a beautiful and uplifting Kabbalat Shabbat that remained indelibly imprinted on my mind for long after. The first Shabbat I spent back in Brooklyn was a bittersweet one. All I could do was remember D.C. and wish I could be there once more.
Reflecting afterwards on the time spent in DC, it was clear that although I had thought that I was going to be contributing something to another community, in reality I was the one who benefitted tremendously. What I experienced there was something that would stay with me for the rest of my life and become a part of my being, a part of the way I look at and understand the world and the people around me.
A few months later, I was presented with the opportunity to sign up for Torah Tours again for Simchat Torah. I enthusiastically signed up and traveled to Richmond, Virginia to spend the holiday with the Keneseth Beth Israel (KBI) congregation, under the leadership of Rabbi Dovid Asher. Together with a team of four other members, I got to know another warm and welcoming community and experienced a good dose of Southern hospitality.
While three-day holidays generally seem too long, during our time in Richmond it proved to be a blessing, allowing us to spend more time in a community that did everything possible to make us feel at home. Between festive meals with different hosts, Torah shiurim with community members whose feedback enriched our experience, a relaxed teen tish, enthusiastic dancing with adults and children in celebration of the Torah, and a lovely afternoon walk to the beautiful University of Richmond campus, our Simchat Torah proved to be uplifting and unforgettable.
Half a year later, in May 2012, I signed up for my third Torah Tours experience, which by then had become a bit of a tradition. This time, my team and I were assigned to a more local community. Our destination was Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation (MKHC), a small century-old community in Northern Westchester, under the leadership of Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider. The fresh mountain air and historic setting created a beautiful background for the extended holiday – it became a relaxing semi-vacation.
Families from all kinds of religious and professional backgrounds welcomed us to this small and cozy community. The stimulating table discussions and the glimpses into the life of their community left us sorry we had to leave when the holiday had concluded. Stories about the history of the community and its members gave us a greater appreciation of where we were spending Shavuot and increased our desire to return one day to Mount Kisco.
This Simchat Torah, teams of students from Yeshiva University are once again being dispatched across the country to different communities. While unable to participate in the program this holiday, I look forward to hearing others’ stories – both those of the students and of the communities hosting Torah Tours groups. The common theme between all three of my Torah Tours experiences was the warm hospitality and kind welcome that we have received in every community we visited, as well as the meaningful lessons my friends and I have taken back with us, and I am sure that the tradition will continue.
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