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Torah Tours 2023: Learning the Lessons of Jewish Leadership in a Moment of Crisis

When more than 70 YU students  signed on to this year’s Torah Tours®, they expected to do what thousands of volunteers have done since the program’s inception in 1974: invigorate Jewish communities across North America during Simchat Torah  with youthful energy and a love of Torah. Over the years, these enthusiastic ambassadors have cultivated a profound partnership between Yeshiva University and scores of synagogues across North America.

Typically, students go above and beyond to inspire their host communities with activities like delivering divrei Torah [words of Torah] to congregants, conducting all-night learning programs and joyously leading children during hakafot [circle dancing]. All in all, they learn how Jewish communal life functions in communities different from their own, and, in the process, how to be caring and attentive leaders.

However, the swift and tragic events of October 7 in Israel, brought the 2023 volunteers face-to-face with the realities of Jewish leadership during a crisis. For Rivka Marcus ’24SB, a strategy and entrepreneurship major, participating in the program was a way of giving back the joy she experienced as a child. “Every year, Torah Tours visited my small community in Springfield, New Jersey, and the student volunteers were the coolest people – energetic, spontaneous, and lots of fun. I promised myself that one day I would be one of them.” Assigned to the Roslyn Synagogue in Roslyn Heights, New York, she recalled the moment the host community learned about the Oct. 7 massacre. “It was right before Shacharit [morning prayer] when the rabbi announced the news about Israel. As details filtered in, and we heard how bad it was, there was a palpable shift in energy, a feeling of fear and of the unknown.”

The rabbi emphasized the importance of continuing with the celebrations as a source of strength and resilience. “These were people I'd never met before,” remarked Rivka. “But they cared for and recognized me as part of the larger Jewish family, and in light of October 7, that was an incredible feeling.”

Spreading Jewish light and joy during Simchat Torah motivated Yishai Kohn ’25YC to join Torah Tours. “Coming from a Chabad background, I found it personally inviting,” remarked the physics major whose host community was Beth Israel Synagogue in Miami Beach, Florida. “As a student at YU, I’m taking in all this wisdom regarding Torah and Judaism, and now there was a chance to share it.” For Yishai, spreading holiday enthusiasm took on a deeper meaning on Oct. 7. Upon learning the day’s tragic news, the congregation’s rabbi encouraged members to stay focused on the holiday’s significance, emphasizing that a proper time for mourning would come and urging Yishai and his fellow volunteers to carry on with the job of bringing joy. “It was definitely an effort to put in that energy,” remarked Yishai, “but we made a real difference in lifting the community’s spirits. In fact, I lost my voice for a week afterwards from all the singing.”

Witnessing the rabbi’s leadership in a time of trauma and uncertainty left its mark. “What I learned,” said Yishai, “was that every extraordinary circumstance presents an opportunity for growth. Being in a community when tragedy strikes and seeing a decisive Jewish leader take a stand in guiding that community’s response is a monumental experience, one in which I played a part.”

For Eli Novick ’26YC, his time volunteering at the BIAV synagogue in Overland Park, Kansas, was just as meaningful and memorable.

“One moment that will stay with me forever," recalled Eli “was at sundown on Saturday night, right as Simchat Torah was about to begin. We had gotten the news about Israel and were uncertain on how to proceed. Should we maintain the usual level of joy and dancing expected on the holiday?” Then Eli recounted that “one of the community leaders stood up and declared, ‘Our brothers and sisters in Israel won’t have the chance to dance and sing this Simchat Torah, so we have the obligation to do it for them.’ It was a powerful moment, and we danced and sang with all our hearts.”

Reflecting on his experience in Kansas with the close-knit and lively congregation, the psychology major shared a key lesson he gained in Jewish leadership: “A leader knows how to swiftly adjust to uncertainty and inspire people in meaningful ways so they can bravely meet the moment of crisis.”

Commenting on that “moment of crisis,” Rabbi Herschel Hartz, Program Coordinator for Torah Tours, praised the program’s volunteers for their strength in the face of adversity. “While the world watched in shock on Oct. 7, our students, uniting with Jewish communities across North America, witnessed the essence of resilience -- that in our deepest times of pain, the Jewish people must be doers who teach through action.”

Rabbi Joel Schreiber, on the left, with Rabbi Ari Rockoff
(l-r): Rabbi Joel Schreiber, former chairman of the RIETS board of trustees and founder of Torah Tours; Rabbi Ari Rockoff, David Mitzner Community Dean for Values and Leadership, Yeshiva University