Just three years ago, as a senior at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Alex began his journey toward Judaism with a slice of kosher pizza in his Jewish Student Union club, a program of NCSY for public high school students. Nechama Kamelhar, New York’s NCSY’s South District director, ran the club and immediately noticed Alex’s genuine interest in Jewish rituals. “I saw that his curiosity was sparked,” said Nechama. “His thoughtful questions intrigued and fascinated others.”
NCSY is the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union.
It was not long before Alex became one of Nechama’s “regulars” and as the spring semester came to a close, Alex decided that he was going to become Bar Mitzvah at New York NCSY’s 2011 Spring Regional Convention. “By then, I had met Rabbi Moshe Zucker (director of outreach), who gave me real, applicable answers to all of my complex Jewish questions,” recalled Alex. “It was so refreshing and rewarding that I felt the most natural next step was having a Bar Mitzvah.”
Alex’s upbringing in an under-affiliated Russian-Jewish family contributed little to his knowledge of Judaism. In fact, having no connection to the religion and any real support or encouragement to cultivate a connection, his sights were set on joining the military shortly after high school graduation in order to receive college aid upon completing his army service. “He’s an exceptional student,” Rabbi Zucker noted. “His scores and resume alone could have landed him in a top university, but the exorbitant costs were another story. I asked him to consider applying to Yeshiva University, where I thought he would have the chance to earn merit scholarships, instead of enlisting right away.”
After attending July in Jerusalem, Yeshiva University’s summer program, Alex decided to learn in Israel for the year at Shapell’s Darche Noam. With a new set of tefillin and a small starter collection of seforim, which he received at his Bar Mitzvah, Alex embarked on an exploratory year of Jewish learning and growth. After returning from Israel, he considered making the final commitment as a ba’al teshuva.
“Alex came to my home for a Shabbat meal after yeshiva,” explained Nechama Kamelhar. “Tons of Jewish topics were discussed, including the Israeli political scene and specific halachot pertaining to Shabbat, and Alex had an opinion on everything.” She continued, “His vast understanding of Judaism surpassed anything I would have thought was possible. It was clear to me that as soon as he was immersed in Torah and Israeli culture, he was able to use his innate intellectual capacity to quickly absorb all that he was interested in.”
With his newfound faith and acquired knowledge, Alex was prepared to publicly demonstrate his dedication. “I had to make a real commitment.” Shyly chuckling, Alex added, “Plus, after learning about the frightening things that happen to those who don’t have a brit, I felt like I’d be really sorry if I didn’t!” With the support of his rebbeim, including Rabbi Zucker and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, representing Yeshiva University’s Mechinah (Bridge) Program, Alex arranged to have a brit milah. “I hope and pray that his mesirat nefesh will be a kapara for all of klal Yisrael for this New Year,” shared Rabbi Zucker.
With butterflies and sweating palms, Alex chose to join in the sacred covenant that has bound the Jewish people for thousands of years, going back to Abraham. The intense physical pain and emotional strain did not prevent Alex from expressing his gratitude to those who guided him throughout his transformation. “I wanted to emulate Avraham Aveinu and immediately receive guests at a seudat mitzvah (meal) after my brit,” explained Alex. The intimate gathering of rebbeim, teachers, mentors, and friends, listened intently as he chillingly revealed that he had been just one signature away from agreeing to be shipped off to Afghanistan almost three years ago.
With a poised demeanor and modest disposition, Alex evoked true feelings of amazement among his guests. Carol Rhine, New York NCSY’s chief operating officer said, “It was not only Alex who learned and benefitted from being a part of NCSY, but rather, it was us who were fortunate enough to be inspired and strengthened by him.” The NCSY family is proud to introduce a true, committed Ben-Torah. Welcome to the tribe, Alex; we can’t wait to see what you accomplish next!
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