Have you ever felt inspired to burst into an impromptu song after a particularly moving experience? Participants in Emet’s Men’s Summer Retreat did just that. No, it wasn’t a traditional tune but an original rap song. Imagine a rhythmic beat, and this preamble: “Guys, summer retreat was amazing. I love you Emet. From the bottom of my heart, I’m going to sing this rap for you...” The song continued: “I reunited with the men. After four months of Corona. I’m trying to come back, learn Torah. All day, any day, overnight. It’s in my mind… Emet Summer Retreat... I love it.”
Fun lyrics and cool style aside, the song demonstrates hakaras ha’tov, or recognizing the good, and appreciating a moment that should not be taken for granted. For the young men in Emet’s Summer Fellowship, the weekend marked the beginning of some level of normalcy and a chance to spend a spiritually uplifting Shabbos with their friends and rebbeim.
“Like all our programming these past few months, planning this retreat took extra thought and consideration,” said Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg, Emet Co-Founder and Director. “Normally, it’s simple for us to plan an Emet Shabbaton, since our Shabbos experiences are as essential as our classes. Now, while nothing is simple, it’s even more critical that we make these weekends happen when we can.”
Rabbi Rutenberg hunkered down with Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Emet’s Campus Director, to plan a (mostly outdoor) itinerary that would have a mix of Torah study, three minyanim a day and exciting activities – all in-keeping with COVID safety guidelines. Prior to the trip, interested participants and Emet staff had to undergo COVID testing. Once everyone had the all-clear, it was full speed ahead for 19 students. In addition to Rabbi Rutenberg and Rabbi Kigel, the group was accompanied by members of the Emet team, including Rabbi Michael Fuzaylov, Rabbi Yakov Musheyev, and Rabbi Eliyahu Maksumov.
The weekend began when the group gathered at the Emet Center on Thursday morning for davening, breakfast, and learning with Rabbi Rutenberg. Then it was off to a skeet shooting range for an adrenaline-filled activity and lunch. Late in the afternoon, the group headed to the home of Rabbi Benzion and Mrs. Shani Klatzko in Monsey – their home-away-from-home for the weekend. Rabbi Klatzko is Olami Educational Director and the founder of Shabbat.com.
“One of the biggest challenges of the weekend was finding accommodations for our group,” said Rabbi Kigel. “We were so fortunate that the Klatzkos, who are renowned for their Shabbos hospitality, graciously opened their home to us for the entire time.”
Thursday continued with chavrusa learning, a barbecue with the Klatzkos, and a night swim. On Friday, after davening, the group headed to Camp Sternberg in Narrowsburg, New York, where they enjoyed private access to all the waterfront activities, including jet skiing, canoeing, and an obstacle course.
Then it was back to Monsey to get ready for Shabbos with the Klatzkos. As the first men’s Shabbaton in months, it was an especially heartening experience that made a religious impact on the students.
Roman Shimonov, a senior at Hunter College, shared, “I joined the Emet Fellowship this summer. I come from a traditional Bukharian background and I was raised with an appreciation of Shabbos and the holidays, but I never fully kept Shabbos before. With Rabbi Fuzaylov’s encouragement, I decided to go on the retreat with a few friends, and I kept Shabbos for the first time. Rabbi Klatzko and his family went out of their way to make us feel at home. We had many meaningful spiritual conversations. I’m currently applying to medical school, and over Shabbos I felt very relaxed, and it was a chance to forget about my daily stress. I’d love to have this experience again.”
One of the most impactful moments of the weekend was when Rabbi Klatzko displayed many religious artifacts he has collected from notable rabbanim in history. One such item was a coat that belonged to the Baba Sali, the renowned Sephardic rabbi and Kabbalist. Rabbi Klatzko invited the students to hold or try on these items and then asked them to each stand up and make a commitment to taking on an additional mitzvah to add to their religious observance. “I decided to take on the mitzvah of putting on t’filin every day,” Roman Shimonov said. “Rabbi Klatzko put all these awe-inspiring items on me and then he said, ‘The mitzvah of putting on t’filin is more holy than all these things.’ It really touched me. I’ve put on t’filin every day so far since the retreat.”
When Shabbos was over, the warmth continued with a m’laveh malkah. Sunday brought additional chavrusa learning and swimming. The finale was a barbecue in Passaic, New Jersey, at the home of Rabbi and Mrs. Kigel. The students had a chance to say goodbye and recount the highlights of their trip.
Nathan Abayev, a student at Touro College, remarked, “Honestly, I felt very spiritual over the weekend. It was my first Shabbaton with Emet. I learned many interesting things about Judaism, but most importantly that it is a relationship between you and G-d. I also felt a stronger bond with the Emet rabbis. Because of this weekend, I took it upon myself to put on t’filin every day.”
“It was amazing to see the enthusiasm of the students who have definitely been feeling cooped up due to COVID,” said Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Emet Campus Director. “The ruchniyus in the air was palpable and made this experience truly unforgettable. It’s an unbelievable privilege to be able to work with such high caliber students.”
Long after the notes of the spontaneous rap song have ended, the feelings of Torah and togetherness from this Emet weekend will remain.
For further information on Emet programs and weekly class schedules, visit www.emetoutreach.org.