Nestled deep within the wooded Catskill Mountains, alongside farmlands, ski lodges, and gurgling brooks, TheZone – Oorah’s summer camp for boys – can best be described as a wonderland. It’s far from civilization, but once you arrive you forget about how long it takes to get here. With its stunning views, recreational activities, deluxe accommodations and tranquil lake, there’s a certain serenity that settles upon everyone who comes here. No wonder so many gather at TheZone for Yomim Tovim, for Chanukah, for retreats, and for countless Shabbosim throughout the year. It’s a happy little world unto itself.
I arrive to join the many mentors, shadchanim, and singles for the annual Rebbetzins Retreat, one of Oorah’s celebrated Shabbos programs. The weekend is well organized, offering an intriguing program as well as opportunities to connect with others. Even table placements for the Shabbos seudos are painstakingly arranged. If I was expecting to see a singles weekend filled with young people milling aimlessly about, I was wrong. Instead, I am witness to an outstanding Shabbaton filled with inspiring sessions, workshops, and a healthy dose of chizuk.
It turns out that most of the “rebbetzins” at the Rebbetzins Retreat are not really rebbetzins at all. Mrs. Raizelle Serebrowski, director of the program, explains: “The shidduch process can be daunting for anyone. For recent baalei teshuvah and their families, it can be overwhelming. There are so many nuances and unspoken rules. They don’t have the contacts and they don’t understand the background. Even the vetting process can be hard. Where do you begin?”
When there’s a problem, Oorah steps in with a solution. “We created a program where volunteers from our community help singles navigate the process. They offer guidance and perspective so the singles could eventually build their own Jewish home. We try to bridge the gap.”
It’s not just about setting them up on dates. “We also offer advice and guidance throughout the process. A rebbetzin is a teacher, a confidante, a role model, and an advocate all rolled into one. These volunteers are the pride and joy of our program and the source of so many of our success stories.”
Any recent success stories, I wonder? “Of course,” says Mrs. Serebrowski. “One couple met here last year and then again at TheZone on Rosh Hashana. Baruch Hashem, they just got married before Pesach.”
There are 40 rebbetzins at the retreat this weekend and about 300 singles. There are also about a dozen shadchanim joining for Shabbos, including R’ Tzodek Katz. All are here with a sense of purpose and determination. And, of course, they will also experience a relaxing and rejuvenating weekend.
Rabbi Chaim Mintz, founder and spiritual leader of Oorah, speaks about the spiritual significance of the mitzvah of marriage at Kabbolas Shabbos. Rabbi Ozzie and Mrs. Rachel Burnham tell us about their own dating experience, a story sprinkled with healthy doses of humor and inspiration. The process may not be easy, they indicate, but Hashem can make it happen.
A gala Kiddush on Shabbos morning is followed by “Ask The Rabbi,” during which Rabbi Mintz fields questions in an open forum. Occasionally, the questions reflect frustration with the shidduch process: Why do men only want to date younger women? Why do women prefer dating men who are financially secure? But Rabbi Mintz patiently answers them all with care and understanding. A panel of distinguished mental health professionals speaks during lunch offering guidance on dating to a ballroom filled with singles who want to do it right.
Amidst a lavish Melave Malka that night, Oorah’s volunteer shadchanim are formally introduced to the program participants. I’m amazed at the dedication of the many mentors and shadchanim who volunteer countless hours of their time and effort to this program simply because they want to help others. I speak to Esther, a mentor who lives in Passaic, and she tells me that she will often facilitate introductions between singles who aren’t comfortable approaching each other personally. “Then I follow up with them after the weekend, sometimes inviting them for a Shabbos. It’s not just this weekend that matters. Follow-up is key.”
Perhaps the biggest heroes at the retreat are the singles themselves, who have come here with a single-minded sense of purpose. Invariably, they are cheerful and optimistic about the future. I speak to Atara who lives in Washington Heights. She says she enjoys the “growth oriented atmosphere and eye opening insights. There’s so much warmth and so many facilitators to help you. Everybody is so respectful.” Arthur is another single who is happy to be here. “The shadchans are really accessible,” he comments. “A lot of them came over to speak to me. I just love the vibe here.”
Participants come from all over the world. I meet the chic and accomplished Sharoll who lives in Bolivia. She joins us this weekend quite by chance. “I googled ‘Shidduch New York’ and this website came up,” she explains. After an interview with Oorah staff, Sharoll was invited to join.
“Organizing this event,” she says, “took a lot of effort. And, clearly, a lot of love. It’s very beautiful that people are taking action by setting up activities, sharing, and volunteering. All this just to make the world a better place, one shidduch at a time. It’s all very inspiring.”
On Sunday morning a massive Speed Dating session takes place under the direction of Rabbi Burnham. Rabbi Mintz, in his closing remarks, urges singles to daven for their shidduch. “Say to Hashem, ‘I want to get married because I want a life filled with Torah and Yiddishkeit, a home filled with kedusha, and children who are ovdei Hashem. I want this for Your sake, to make a Kiddush Hashem.’ Then He will answer our tefillos.”
Rabbi Mintz encourages all of us to look at the broader picture. “When a young man and woman get married, they look like a wonderful young couple. But let’s look at the family fifty years later. There will be children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, a whole dynasty of Torah Jews!”
And then he concludes with a simple yet hopeful request. “Everybody, please invite me to your chasunahs. I’d love to be there!”