Breaking the Barriers
His relationship with the Drebins was cordial, maybe even a bit friendly, but basically limited to their monthly meeting when his rent was due. One sunny day in April, there was a knock on the adjoining door between the basement and the upstairs. Eli stood there hesitantly, holding a small yellow post-it note. “Ira,” he began, “we’ve had a few conversations about Jewish issues lately, and I’ve noticed that you seem to be interested in learning more. Well, there’s a guy Rabbi Sapirman who is really great at answering all these questions and has a lot of experience dealing with people like you. I wrote down his number for you in case you ever want to reach him.” Ira stuck the note on his computer desk, thanked his well-meaning landlord, and promptly forgot the entire conversation.
Several months later, as Ira was spring-cleaning his apartment, he came across the note. After a moment of deliberation, Ira threw what may have been his only chance at a meaningful life into the garbage can near his desk.
A few months later, Ira was in line at a bank waiting to make a deposit. He was feeling pretty good about himself, having just successfully completed a large job in his profession. Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and found himself face-to-face with a bearded man in a black hat. “With a smile like yours,” the man said, “I must know your name!” “I’m Ira Pettle,” he gamely replied. “Who are you?” “My name is Rabbi Sapirman.” Ira could literally feel his heart begin to pound. “It was at that moment,” he says, “that I felt G-d. The undeniable Divine intervention took me to another place spiritually. I knew I had to act!” Ira set up an appointment to talk with Rabbi Sapirman the very next day and, less than twenty-four hours later, Ira Pettle, who knew next to nothing about Judaism, found himself the proud owner of a Stone English translation of the Bible. His journey had begun!
Two weeks later, Rabbi Sapirman called Ira and told him about an exciting three-week trip to Israel being offered to college students by The Jewish Learning Exchange program at Ohr Somayach. At the time, Ira, an aspiring actor, had just landed a part in a major play called “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” It told the story of Joseph and the his ten brothers. Feeling the Divine pull of Israel, Ira gave up his part in the play and found himself flying off to learn more about Judaism.
Upon his arrival in synagogue that first Shabbat in Israel, Ira was stunned to learn that his search for religion had begun on The Torah portion of Mikeitz, the very portionthat describes the story of Joseph and his brothers! Once again, he could feel the hand of G-d in a very personal way.
A mere three months later, Ira spent Shabbat right here in Lakewood, along with close to eighty college students from all across the country. These students had joined together for an inspiring Shabbat that heralded the creation of a brand new frontier in the world of outreach. Here is the story behind the incredible Shabbat that captured the hearts of the Lakewood community, the Shabbat that has left an indelible mark on old-timers and newcomers to Judaism alike.
In July 2006 a group of religious professionals set off on a pioneering mission. Led by Danny Lemberg, a prominent Lakewood businessman, their goal was to spend a week in Israel together with a group of college students on a Jewish Learning Exchange (JLE) trip to Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.
Approximately four times a year, Ohr Somayach sponsors trips that bring scores of North Americans to experience Israel and to learn more about their roots. On this particular trip, the students joined with the group of “mentors.” They spent a week interacting together as the students explored the world of the Torah Jew.
Admittedly, the idea was to give these professionals a taste of the world of outreach and a chance to get involved in a meaningful way. But no-one expected what happened next. The mentors found that they were more than simply impressed by the scope of the operation; they found themselves enjoying every minute of their roles in the program. The outreach professionals were amazed to discover the natural connection these students formed with their new role models, individuals who were successful in the business world, while at the same time living a Torah-true lifestyle. Close relationships were forged with their new students and, as the unbelievably successful trip drew to a close, the mentors found themselves personally uplifted and yearning for more opportunities to make a meaningful impact on the lives of others. Thus was born Mentor Missions, a revolutionary organization that has already begun to change the face of the world of outreach.
Following up on the outstanding success of the first trip, a second group headed off to Israel this winter. They were joined by Rabbi Yerucham Olshin, the dean of Beth Medrash Gevoah in Lakewood, NJ who went to give moral support to the students of Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, as well as to the participants in the JLE group. The group spent a memorable Shabbat together in Tzefat, delighting in the mystical aura of the holy city. Once again, the group of mentors left on a high, already planning their next trip. Slowly, an idea began to develop. Could they possibly recreate the incredible Tzefat atmosphere back home in Lakewood? The group of mentors met to discuss the possibility of a Lakewood reunion, in which the students of the two trips would be brought back together with their mentors for another Shabbot experience. Arrangements were made and myriads of details were attended to, clearing the way for what was shaping up to be a Shabbot to remember!
Dateline: Friday, Torah Portion-Yisro, 1:00pm, Lakewood:
Ateres Yeshaya was a bustling hub of activity as last minute details were locked into place in advance of the anticipated arrival of the Shabbaton participants. The hosts, former mentors from the first two missions, along with a new group of local families, stood by, as they awaited their guests. All told, close to fifty Lakewood families opened their homes on behalf of the participants in the mission. These hosts were religious families with little or no background in outreach who shared a common ideal: a desire to do anything possible to help give these young men a positive introduction to Judasim.
Finally, the long awaited moment arrived. The vans, carrying students who had flown in from colleges all across the country and Canada, pulled into the parking lot. After a hot lunch and a short orientation, the guests met up with their hosts and went off to their homes to prepare for Shabbat. In the synagogue the Kabbalat Shabbt was led by R’ Moshe Brodt. Using a combination of Chassidic songs and Carlebach renditions, he captivated and inspired the crowd, who joined along with enthusiastic dancing. By the time the davening concluded, over two hours later, the ice had definitely been broken, as the mentors and students sat down together for the Shabbat meal.
If any feelings of awkwardness remained, they were quickly dispelled by Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, who addressed the crowd, as only he can, using humor as the medium to deliver his message. Following the meal, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, a senior faculty member at Ohr Somayach and a leader in the field of outreach, hosted a Chassidic-style tisch-gathering. Lasting well into the night, the tisch combined heartfelt singing, words of Torah, and an overall feeling of unity that left the guests and mentors uplifted and yearning for more.
After the morning Shacharis and a gala kiddush, the mentors got a chance to really give their guests a taste of the sweetness of Torah when they sat down to learn together for an intensive chavrusa - learning session.
A highlight of the Shabbat for many of the guests was the Shabbat day meal with the host families. Jason, a college student from Canada, recalls being “impressed by the host families more than anything else. The generosity, the caring, the tenderness, the time they spent with us, just amazed me!” The opportunity to watch a religious family in action can have an unimaginable effect, not only on the guest, but on the host family as well. In the words of Shimon Falik, a host: “The meal was amazing! My kids were very excited to meet Alan. He shared his life story with us, and we shared ours with him. It was truly an enjoyable and enriching experience! We can’t wait to do it again!”
Before the afternoon Minchah, the group gathered at the home of R’ Refoel Zucker for refreshments and a lectureby Rabbi Orlofsky. Rabbi Cohen addressed the gathering for the Seuda Shlishis meal. He stressed the importance of recognizing G-d in every detail of our daily lives, from the very act of breathing to the ability to walk, talk, and communicate. Jonathan Jaffet, a student from Toronto, called it the highlight of his trip. “Rabbi Cohen really blew us all out of the water. He truly knew how to touch and inspire us.”
After the Shabbat, the group was led by R’ Yehoshua Leib Hill on a fascinating tour of the Beth Medrash Gevoah Yeshiva, followed by a personal visit with the Dean of Students, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon. Over one hundred people crowded into the Rabbi Salomon’s dining room and waited with bated breath for the man described as the “ethical leader of American Jewry.”
His entrance into the room was an inspiring sight as the students, clearly in awe, became instantly quiet and attentive to his every word. Rabbi Salomon noted that “it is not a coincidence that you landed in Lakewood on the Shabbat of the giving of theTorah!” In his trademark warm and caring style, Rabbi Salomon explained that the Torah is not just a book of restrictions. Rather, just like the signs warning people not to approach Mount Sinai were there to protect the Jewish Peoplefrom danger, the restrictions in the Torah are not restrictions at all; they actually offer protection from spiritual dangers that can harm us irreparably.
Following the visit with the Rabbi Salomon, the entire group headed to the home of Rabbi and Mrs. Shea Beren for a grand Melava Malka. The buffet meal was followed by a keynote address delivered by Rabbi Orlofsky. He stressed the importance of acting now to capitalize on the inspiration of the Shabbat spent in Lakewood—before it fades away. He pointed out how easy it is to live a meaningless life and the hardships a meaningful life entails. “That,” he said, “is the secret to the success of the Mentor Missions program. These mentors are people who lead successful lives. They have things to do with their time. They have obligations; and yet they took time out from their hectic schedules to join this mission. Not because they felt guilty, not because they felt bad, but because they wanted to. They wanted to do something meaningful with their lives despite the hardships it entailed! What a powerful message!”
The Melava Malka concluded with spirited dancing, as the mentors and their guests, by now close friends, enthusiastically joined together, creating a feeling of joy and fulfillment that lasted well into the night. The night became even more meaningful when Rabbi Yerucham Olshin came in to reunite with his new students. The dancing suddenly took on a new dimension as the connectionformed months ago in Israel was strengthened in America.
As the night drew to a close, it was readily apparent that all barriers between the two groups had been shattered, leaving behind one harmonious family eager to grow together. On Sunday morning the group joined together once again for Shacharis. It was incredible to witness the intense emotion and feeling as several of the students donned tefillin for the first time. After breakfast Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb gave a class based on the Torah outlook on the pleasures of the world. He was followed by Dr. Rich Roberts, president and CEO of a large pharmaceuticals company, who discussed some of the positive aspects of being a religiousJew in the corporate world.
The trip wrapped up with a tour of New York. Only then did the exhausted students board their planes with much to ponder. At the same time, they were secure in the knowledge that their new “family” in Lakewood would be ready to help them anytime, anywhere.
Was the Lakewood reunion a success? R’ Avromi Neuhaus, project coordinator for Mentor Missions certainly thinks so. “The Shabbat by far exceeded our expectations. The energy and excitement was there from the first minute, and it never let up. Already, R’ Moshe Brodt received a call from a student who was here for Shabbat who asked if Rabbi Brodt could set up a learning session for him twice a week!
The hosts were all fabulous. Not only did they give of themselves, but they gained so much from the experience as well. I can’t tell you how many calls we received from hosts who want to know when the next Shabbat is. In fact Mr. Lemberg received several calls from friends and neighbors who complained that they weren’t asked to get involved and act as hosts.
The strong bonds that the mentors formed with their guests are proof positive that you don’t have to be a outreach professional to introduce someone to Judaism. You can be a regular guy with a regular family and really make a difference simply by sharing a Shabbat with a less knowledgeable Jew.
Will there be another Mentor Missions Shabbat in Lakewood? “Absolutely!” says Rabbi Neuhaus. “We already received a call from our representative at Washington State University requesting ten slots at the next Lakewood Shabbos. There are approximately four hundred thousand unaffiliated Jewish students in colleges across America. The ratio of outreach professionals to secular Jewsis staggering. If we can harness the power of the “regular guy,” the members of our communities, we can build a veritable army of citizen soldiers who are dedicated to the cause of bringing these students back. The tremendous Siyata Dishmaya – help from Heaven we experienced since the inception of this project and every step of the way is, to me, a clear indication that we are on the right track in our mission!”
Oh, and Ira Pettle? His Shabbat was simply incredible. “It’s just so amazing to be Jewish,” he enthuses. “I’m just starting to understand this now, and I love it! I realize that the road I’m climbing is uphill. The biggest lesson I took away is that I really have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward!”
Ira plans to spend this coming summer learning in Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, drop in to see him. He’d love to meet you!
- Reprinted from The Voice of Lakewood February 23, 2007
The Next Mentors Mission event will take place July 8 – 17. Contact Rabbi Avromi Neuhaus for full information at firstname.lastname@example.org