By Menachem Segal
On Shabbos Parshas Shemos, Brooklyn was forever transformed. An extraordinary event was witnessed by hundreds of members of Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin in Flatbush. The Agudah members were transfixed as they observed sixty unaffiliated and less affiliated students and young professionals, many of whom never before experienced a Shabbos, or had never stepped foot into an Orthodox shul, participate in the inaugural Brooklyn Jewish Experience Shabbaton.
Why was this Shabbaton so exceptional?
While Kiruv is alive and well throughout North America, Brooklyn, which, interestingly, has the largest population of unobservant Jews in the Western hemisphere, has never had a mainstream Kiruv program or a Kiruv Shabbos for locals. This all changed with the founding of a special organization. Brooklyn Jewish Experience (BJX) is a 501(c) 3 organization dedicated to inspiring, empowering, and educating less affiliated and unaffiliated Jews from Brooklyn, as well as tending to the needs of Jews from frum homes that are need chizuk or are no longer leading Torah-observant lifestyles. The organization is led by its Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer, a renowned lecturer, author (the acclaimed Hashkafah book Search Judaism), and radio host on the Hidabroot Torah radio station 97.5FM, who formerly served as a Rav at Aish HaTorah on the Upper West Side and Maggid Shiur at Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim in Queens. He is assisted by a team of volunteers. His brother Rabbi Moshe Fingerer, a business professional, serves as volunteer executive director.
Each week, Rabbi Fingerer’s shiurim motivate and inspire BJX students to explore different fundamental topics in Torah and Yiddishkeit. The Rabbi is available round-the-clock to offer guidance and answer students questions. The weekly BJX program has also been privileged to hear from other famous speakers such as Rebbetzin Jungreis, Charlie Harary, Rabbi Lazer Brody and Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein. BJX also works ardently to ensure that their students not intermarry. With tremendous siyata dishmaya they have been successful in preventing several intermarriages.
After conducting events for Chanukah, Purim and other holidays, Rabbi Fingerer felt it was time for the students to experience a real Shabbos. Mr. and Mrs. Moshe and Rivky Caller were mentors at a special BJX lecture with Dr. David J. Lieberman on the subject of Self Esteem and Relationships, where Rabbi Fingerer mentioned the need to create a Shabbos for the students. Mr. and Mrs. Caller graciously accepted the challenge of organizing and sponsoring the Shabbaton. Rabbi Fingerer then conferred with Rabbi Lieff about Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin adopting the Brooklyn Jewish Experience Shabbaton. Rabbi Lieff and Mr. Chezky Paneth appointed Mr. Yidi Derdik as Chairman of the Kiruv Shabbos and the rest is history. Mr. Derdik worked selflessly day and night along with Rabbi Fingerer to arrange the hospitality and to ensure that both the hosts and students would abe comfortable and happy. Prior to the guests’ arrival the host and hostesses received an email from Rabbi Fingerer outlining the schedule of the Shabbaton and tips and guidelines on dealing with unaffiliated and less observant guests.
Mr. Caller arranged for a beautiful a capella Carlebach davening led by Sruli Williger and his choir. Before Kabbalas Shabbos Rabbi Lieff spoke to the shul and welcomed Rabbi Fingerer and the Brooklyn Jewish Experience students. Rabbi Lieff told the Brooklyn Jewish Experience students, “We receive more inspiration from you than you receive from us.” He then asked the mispallelim to please assist the BJX students with finding the place in davening. Mr. Yidi Derdik had seats arranged for each student and an Artscroll Siddur prepared. This special BJX Shabbaton Kabbalos Shabbos may have been the longest davening in Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin history (before Marriv began, Rabbi Lieff announced to the shul that due to the late hour there’s no need to repeat Kriyas Shema!) Scores of people danced around the shul in a huge circle with everyone singing Lecha Dodi.
After davening, the students proceeded to the beautiful upstairs ballroom and were greeted by a feast for the eyes. A stunning, exquisite gourmet meal with a variety of dry wines greeted the students. The students were seated with their mentors for the evening-Rabbi and Mrs. Yitzchok Fingerer, Mr. and Mrs. Moshe Caller, Mr. and Mrs. Shloimy Dachs, Mr. and Mrs. Kessner, Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Hoenlein, Mr. and Dr. Benji Ovitch (who graciously provided the wine from M.B. Vineyards) and Rabbi Moshe Fingerer. Mr. Caller introduced the program, speaking passionately about the importance of Shabbos observance and how much he personally gains from his daily seder in Torah learning and his love of Shabbos. He spoke about he and his wife hosted a BJX lecture by Rabbi Fingerer in their home, his subsequent friendship with Rabbi Fingerer and what motivated him to get involved further with Brooklyn Jewish Experience.
Following the main course (roast beef and hen), the preeminent Jewish leader Mr. Malcolm Hoenlein (and Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) delivered an electrifying address. He spoke beautifully bout Achdus, Jewish unity, and stressed how important it is for the students to connect with their Jewish heritage. He shared with everyone details about his recent trips to meet with Assad in Syria and the Generals of the Opposition in Cairo. He also shared some insights about his meetings with different US Presidents. The students were enthralled by his humor, candor and powerful message. He and his wife spent time with the students, graciously answering all questions. The students were thrilled to make their acquaintance. After a beautiful dinner with heart stirring zemiros led by renowned singer Shloime Dachs, it was time for the lavish Oneg. All the tables were pushed together to form one long table. The mouth watering, sumptuous Viennese table was a sight to behold. Every dessert imaginable seemed to have been at the BJX Oneg. Many of the hosts and hostesses from the Agudah now joined the Brooklyn Jewish Experience Shabbaton for a beautiful Oneg. World-acclaimed mentalist David Blatt arrived and his stunning mind reading performance involved many students, as well as Shloime Dachs and Malcolm Hoenlein. David Blatt’s amazing mind reading performance added just the right amount of fun to balance out all the intense learning that was going on. Following David’s astounding mind reading feats, Rabbi Moshe Fingerer inspired all those gathered for the Oneg with an intriguing story and a brief, fascinating discussion on the 613 mitzvos. Then Rabbi Lieff, the Rav of the Agudah joined the Oneg and presented a beautiful dvar Torah to a packed room. He explained how the mitzvos are not restrictions. He regaled the many participants with a story about the Queen of England and Margaret Thatcher. He told the BJX students that he was thrilled that that they are with the shul for this special Shabbaton and that he can’t believe that right here in Flatbush are so many who are now connecting with their Judaism. He said that more than the BJX students are gaining; he and the shul are gaining. The students very much enjoyed hearing Rabbi Lieff’s speech and connecting with him. On Shabbos morning Rabbi Fingerer offered a special program and lecture on Tefillah which was followed by an elegant and grand kiddush in the upper ballroom hosted by Mr. Moshe Caller with the all the hosts and hostesses from the Agudah.
BJX asked all students to please stay until the completion of Shabbos. Being that the students came with cars and had access to public transportation, there was no way BJX or the many hosts could guarantee that the students wouldn’t leave in middle of Shabbos. This Shabbaton, after all, wasn’t a hotel program. Anyone could have easily picked themselves up, packed their bags and left. In fact, the hosts for the afternoon program, Mr. and Mrs. Zutler, were told to expect fewer students for the afternoon program which featured lectures by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer, which was accompanied by refreshments followed by Havdala and a Kumzits. Everyone was pleasantly surprised when an overflow crowd of more than 50 students entered their home. The Zutlers scoured the basement and used every spare chair to accommodate the large group of BJX students. Students sat on the living room couch and then the excess students were invited by Mrs. Zutler to sit on the foot of the steps and take over all the top of the steps. It was clear that the BJX students were gaining so much from the Shabbaton; they chose to remain to learn more about the Shabbos experience. The students were joined by Shlomie Dachs and the Zutlers. Rabbi Fingerer had everyone spellbound listening with rapt attention as he discussed love and dating from a Torah perspective using humor and fascinating insights and stories. He then engaged everyone in a deep ethical discussion posing various ethical dilemmas that tied into Parshas Shemos. Everyone got involved in the discussion and by the look on everyone’s face you could tell one and all really enjoyed listening to Rabbi Fingerer. At the conclusion of Shabbos, Havdala was sang to a beautiful melody by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer along with Shlomie Dachs and Aron Zutler (Yehudah Green’s accompanist) strumming the guitar. The students did not leave. They were in no rush to leave. They were enjoying every moment. One student said, “I will forever remember this Shabbos”. From the delicious gourmet meal Friday night, to the stunning Viennese table at the Oneg, to the elaborate Kiddush the next morning and the hosts’ delicious lunch-there was plenty of Gashmiyus, which helped create a truly unique and memorable Shabbaton. But to see so many students linger in the Zutler home after Shabbos, trying to absorb just a little more kedusha it became very clear that whoever participated in the Brooklyn Jewish Experience Shabbaton did so because they wanted to learn and grow.
One student’s feedback from the Shabbaton: “I gave up observing Shabbos nine years ago. This Shabbaton was so inspirational and eye-opening that I resolved to begin keeping Shabbos again next week. It was the Shabbos of my life! I also just committed to learning with Rabbi Moshe Fingerer every week.”
Other comments from BJX students were:
“I never was exposed to the Sabbath before. It was incredible. My first time ever experiencing Shabbat. I so much want to be able to do it again.”
“I never had such a positive experience before!”
“It was wonderful being part and being exposed to and included in another community in Brooklyn. I gained so much from the class on prayer and plan on starting to pray some of the morning prayers every day.”
“We always go to McDonalds. After the Shabbaton, we were so inspired that we decided we had to eat in a Glatt Kosher restaurant.”
“It was an amazing Shabbat that I will have in my heart forever.”
After the Shabbaton, Rabbi Fingerer worked closely with the host families to ensure that the relationship and bond they fostered with the students would flourish and grow. Now the challenge is for the Brooklyn Jewish Experience to have the funding to orchestrate more opportunities for their students to experience other beautiful Shabbosos, Yomim Tovim, and programs and have other opportunities to connect with religious Jews to feel a part of a vibrant Jewish community.
If anyone wants to get involved in supporting the local Kiruv revolution, real Hatzlolos Nefashos, see the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pOA0W2nDHw, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 646-785-6845.