This past Shabbat I attended the NCSY Israel Am Yisrael Chai Regional Shabbaton. Close to 200 English-speaking teens living in Israel gathered in Kfar Etzion for an incredible Shabbat experience together with NCSY Israel staff and musical and inspirational guest Rav Noam Koenigsberg. In many ways this Shabbaton was like any other NCSY Israel Shabbaton and yet it was utterly differently.
The Shabbaton had many of the same beautiful moments as I had seen on other Shabbatons. Teens who might be otherwise uninspired or apathetic in their Judaism, now sang, danced and prayed with extreme energy and meaning channeling Rav Noam’s encouraging words “listen to your voices.” Teens who may not have connected in a deep personal way to Torah learning, now participated and were actively engaged in our uniquely crafted Torah sessions and discussions helping them identify their unique potential and how they can impact the world. Teens who may not have had an outlet or the confidence to share their own Torah thoughts, now presented to a crowd of over 200 people with advisors and directors glowing with motherly nachat (pride) and telling those sitting next to them “That kid is going to be a big name one day.”
Yet, there were also distinct elements that made this Shabbaton extremely unique. While we always have safety guidelines in place at every NCSY Israel Shabbaton and event, we have never needed to review the protocol if one were to hear a siren: proceed to the closest bomb shelter and if not able to find a bomb shelter within the 90 seconds given, lie with your stomach on the ground and your hands on your heads. These guidelines became even more relevant when all participants on the Shabbaton heard a loud boom on Friday night from a rocket near Tekoa, not far from Kfar Etzion. They became more relevant when there was a drill on motzei Shabbat and teens went into a shelter, thankfully only as practice and not due to a real threat.
Overall, this Shabbaton was different than any other because it took place during the current war in Israel: Operation Iron Swords. And that could be felt in every aspect of the event.
As Rav Noam led the singing to end off Shabbat, he told the teens the following message. “Through their attack on October 7th Hamas tried to take away three things: our simcha, our Torah and our Shabbat. Together this past Shabbat we showed that we still have our simcha, our Torah is stronger than ever, and this was the most beautiful epitome of the Shabbat experience.” He told the teens “You may not be on the frontlines of the battle but together over Shabbat, all of our prayers and songs served as ammunition, spiritual ammunition in this war.”
Everyone here in Israel is affected by the war. It is something that is consistently on everyone’s mind in some regard. In NCSY Israel many of our teens have siblings or parents currently serving in the army. At this point virtually everyone knows someone that was unfortunately killed in the war: a cousin, a neighbor, a family friend. These teens will need to make decisions on their own army service/national service in just a few years’ time so the situation is very real for them.
In one of our meetings when discussing if we would proceed with this Shabbaton despite the war our Executive Director, Rabbi Michael Kahn said something that stayed with me throughout this Shabbat: “I can’t think of a better way to beat Hamas than by holding this Shabbaton.” Everything we did on Shabbat was in fact war related. Everything we did on Shabbat was our way of fighting back. And after such a meaningful Shabbaton I can’t help but think that we are winning.