by Elizabeth Ossowska
(Edmonton) – As February came to a close, eleven Jewish teens from Edmonton joined hundreds of others from around the world at the eleventh international Cteen Shabbaton in New York. Led by Chabad Edmonton’s lively Rabbi Dovid Pinson, and later joined by lovely Chaya Vaisfiche from Montreal to be with the girls, the group got a taste of life in Crown Heights in a flurry of learning, discussing, meeting tons of new people, eating delicious food, exploring Times Square, and mastering the art of being very low on sleep (a skill that anybody who has ever been on a Shabbaton is quite familiar with). While the weekend went by tremendously quickly, each of us took away a gem of sorts, whether it be of new friendships, love of our culture, devotion to Torah, or in opening doors to our future. It is not the sort of trip that goes by and is forgotten, replaced by the mundane realities of everyday life; rather, it stays with us in some way or another, and certainly will for a long time.
That being said, not every part of the Shabbaton was imbued with such a level of sagacity and meaningful rhetoric. After all, it’s New York; teenagers are there to have fun! One of our first activities consisted of a trek to Manhattan to visit Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Several floors’ worth of strangely lifelike figures, there was something for everyone – whether it was sitting down to tea with the Queen, posing for a selfie with Kylie Jenner, or marvelling at the Hulk. And since we just couldn’t get enough of the Times Square area, later on Sunday we went back to spend our final afternoon milling around the gigantic stores and crowded streets.
Perhaps the highlight of the Shabbaton for many was the concert in Times Square on Saturday night, featuring the popular singer Yaakov Shwekey. The raw energy of proud Jewish teens from everywhere gathered in one spot, defying thousands of years of persecution, was a beautifully bewildering thing to witness. Seeing the Rebbe on those huge, 21st-century billboards, I couldn’t help but think of how far we have come as a people, and how against all odds we are still here, celebrating our faith in such an overt, unashamed manner as a concert in the middle of one of the busiest areas of the world.
Of course, there were parts of the Shabbaton that were much quieter and less exciting-sounding, yet were just as valuable. Our hosts were absolutely incredible in providing a calm, comfortable space to return to at the end of each action-packed day. To think, with how often Shabbatons occur in Crown Heights, and how readily people volunteer their personal space by opening their homes to complete strangers – it is difficult to come up with such an impeccable example of selflessness. A particularly pertinent example of this warmth and hospitality was when we had Shabbos kiddush with some of Rabbi Dovid’s extended family. They were exceptionally welcoming, not to mention the delicious food we were served (though throughout the entire Shabbaton, every meal was delectable – just as we were filled with inspiration we were filled with food). Meeting part of a family that we already know added a certain irreplaceable personal dimension to the weekend, and we are very grateful that we were able to meet them.
While countless friendships and connections were formed throughout the Shabbaton – across the globe, literally – to a smaller scale our group had plenty of opportunities to deepen already-existing bonds. Whether through a loud Torah discussion on the subway or in an intense round of Jewish spot-it, many within the Edmonton chapter were able to strengthen their friendships with other local Cteen members, and to celebrate our differing tastes and opinions all the while remaining a solid group.
This individuality is exactly what went into this year’s theme, “I matter.” We heard many impactful stories from dozens of inspiring people, most notably that of Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz, who was diagnosed five years ago with ALS, leaving him incapable of moving or speaking. Thanks to modern technology he can communicate using a computer program, where he stares at a letter on an onscreen keyboard for a few seconds until it detects him looking at it, in order to write. While this process is long and arduous and the disease was devastating news to the father of seven, he uses his story as a symbol of positivity in the face of adversity. He continuously writes and uses his message to uplift Jews who are confronted with dire circumstances such as his own or who are struggling in any capacity. We also heard stories from other Cteeners who have made a difference in their own communities, from setting up a Kosher Food Club in a public school to vouching for recognition of Jewish holidays. The Shabbaton prized each of our uniqueness all the while strengthening the Jewish connection that binds us together – thus striking a perfect balance between being an individual and being part of a collective, loving the way Hashem made us different all the while staying true to the principle of ahavat Yisrael.
The Shabbaton was also dotted with workshops and educational activities. Many incredible speakers were flown in, from Rabbis to baal teshuva, university professors to Rebbetzins. These sessions covered various topics catering to diverse interests – leadership, science and Torah, self-esteem, and the key to Jewish relationships, to name a few, along with some farbrengens and crossfire panels where no question was off limits. The fact that the program was so enriched with wisdom, understanding and knowledge is what completed the weekend; it gave us a sense of purpose and renewed – revitalized – our love of Judaism.
At the pinnacle of this learning was the moving experience of being in the Ohel, and chiefly in 770. It is true that there is something magical about those walls; the Rebbe’s presence has never ceased to resonate. This rings true even beyond Brooklyn – at the very start of our adventures we witnessed direct hashgacha pratis. The group was caught up at border control and we were about to miss our flight; we were told the plane was leaving and we were going to have to wait for the next one. Then, by the time we made it through, we were informed that in fact the flight was delayed by two hours due to fueling! It turns out we were lucky to have been stuck waiting in the airport instead of being crammed into airplane seats for extra time.
Overall, the eleventh annual Cteen Shabbaton was an undeniable success, drawing teens from all six continents (unfortunately, there is not much of a Jewish community in Antarctica… perhaps one day there will be Chabad shluchim there!). There were more than enough activities, insights, and kindness to go around and touch every young Jew present. Despite the trip being only a few days, the effects of the Shabbaton are sure to reverberate through the lives of many, and will continue to do so for many years to come.