Why was this Shabbaton so exceptional?
While Kiruv (Jewish outreach) 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 Shabbat 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 Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer, a renowned lecturer and author (the acclaimed Hashkafah book Search Judaism) 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 Jewish topics. 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 Zecharya Wallerstein.
After conducting events for Chanukah, Purim and other holidays, Rabbi Fingerer felt it was time for the students to experience a real Shabbat. It was at a special BJX lecture with Dr. David J. Lieberman on the subject of Self Esteem and Relationships, where he mentioned to BJX friends and supporters, Mr. and Mrs. Moshe and Rivky Caller (the Callers attended the lecture as mentors) the need to create a Shabbat 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 Shabbat 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 be 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 prayer service led by Sruli Williger and his choir. Before Kabbalat Shabbat Rabbi Lieff spoke to the shul and welcomed Rabbi Fingerer and the Brooklyn Jewish Experience students. Rabbi Lieff told the BJX students, “We receive more inspiration from you than you receive from us.” Mr. Yidi Derdik had seats arranged for each student and an Artscroll Siddur prepared. This special BJX Shabbaton Kabbalat Shabbot may have been the longest tefilah in Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin history (before Maariv began, Rabbi Lieff announced to the shul that due to the late hour there was no need to repeat Kriyat Shema!) Scores of people danced around the shul in a huge circle with everyone singing Lecha Dodi.
Immediately following services, 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 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. Following the main course, the preeminent Jewish leader Mr. Malcolm Hoenlein (Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) delivered an electrifying speech. He spoke passionately about Achdut, 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 U.S. Presidents. The students were enthralled by his humor, candor and powerful message.
After a beautiful dinner with heart-stirring zemirot 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, with what appeared to be every kind of dessert imaginable. 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 mitzvot. Then Rabbi Lieff, the Rav of the Agudah joined the Oneg and presented a beautiful dvar Torah to a packed room.
Rabbi Lieff told the BJX students how thrilled he was that that they were 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 explained that more than the BJX students are gaining; he and the shul are gaining. The students very much enjoyed the opportunity to hear Rabbi Lieff speak and to connect with him.
On Shabbat morning Rabbi Fingerer offered a special program and lecture on Tefillah which was followed by an elegant and grand kiddush in the upper ballroom, prepared by Moshe Caller along with all the hosts and hostesses from the Agudah.
BJX requested that the students stay until the completion of Shabbat. Since the students came with cars and/or 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 Shabbat. 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, to be followed by havdalah and a kumzits. Everyone was pleasantly surprised when an overflow crowd of 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, as more and more showed up, students were invited by Mrs. Zutler to sit on the stairs. The participants, so engrossed in the Shabbaton, chose to remain to learn more about the Shabbat 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 Parshat Shemot. The afternoon program became very interactive, with the students becoming fully engaged in the discussion, their faces lighting up was Rabbi Fingerer elucidated profound Jewish concepts.
At the conclusion of Shabbat, Havdalah was sung 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 savoring 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 Gashmiyut, 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.
After the Shabbaton, one participant has this to say: “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 included:
“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.”
“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. Going forward, the Brooklyn Jewish Experience will, with G-d’s help, create opportunities for our students to experience more beautiful Shabbatot, Yomim Tovim, and other gatherings that will allow them to connect to their observant fellow Jews, and to feel a part of a vibrant Jewish community.