Ohr Lagolah - A Kiruv Ray of Hope
This is the story of the Ohr Lagolah Leadership Institute of Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim.
For close to two decades Ohr Lagolah’s two-year program has succeeded in training talmidim of Ohr Somayach and outstanding mainstream yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel to become outreach educators for kiruv work on college campuses, in community outreach kollelim, shuls and schools in the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Continental Europe, South Africa and Australia.
In a transcontinental virtual interview with the heads of Ohr Lagolah we asked them how this program started and how it works. Following is the fascinating profile of one of the most powerful producers of kiruv talent.
Jews, Judaism, and the Land of Israel:Three things that go together – or ought to – in the mind of every Jew. But this once obvious connection has become blurred in the minds of many, simply because of lack of education. Jews with little or no connection to Judaism or to Israel are no longer sure of the relevance of either.Many Jews can’t even answer even the question: Why be Jewish?
Jewish communities worldwide desperately need talented, bright, and, dedicated young people who are trained as kiruv educators, leaders, and community role models. To translate Judaism into the language of the 21st century, to relay ancient pride of heritage and pride in Israel to a modern generation, educators today need more than just knowledge. They need skill. And they need training.
With skill, with training, kiruv educators can usher in a golden age of blossoming interest, pride in Israel, and Jewish identification. Without it, Jewish children get turned off by a system that seems old-fashioned and boring, bringing assimilation, identity-loss, and plummeting involvement in Jewish issues.
To address this challenge, Ohr Somayach — international leader in Jewish education — created the Ohr Lagolah Leadership Institute. A two year graduate program accredited by the Israel Ministry of Education, Ohr Lagolah Institute trains an elite “peace corps” of talented, intelligent and motivated young Jews to assume outreach positions on college campuses and educational and leadership roles in Jewish schools and communities around the world.Participants are schooled in the art of communicating and relaying Judaism to Jews of all backgrounds, especially to those who are secular or non-committed.
Students are trained in kiruv techniques, pedagogy, counseling, public speaking, community relations and group dynamics, computers, along with practical Halacha, Jewish history, and the classical texts of Bible and Talmud.
Ohr Lagolah attracts applicants from the top-ranked yeshivot in Jerusalem and Israel, including a significant percentage from Ohr Somayach itself.Applicants selected are those who demonstrate prior outstanding academic achievement and who are enthusiastic and determined. Many have advanced secular degrees and have reached positions of public responsibility, in addition to their outstanding achievement in Jewish studies.
Ohr Lagolah candidates are unique in their commitment to communicate and share with others.More students have spouses who – sharing their flair and commitment to Jewish community activism – attend special classes offered by Ohr Lagolah.
The Ohr Lagolah student body is a cosmopolitan mix:Participants from the finest traditional “yeshiva”- upbringing blend with those of formerly secular, well-credentialed, backgrounds, creating a multi-dimensional, university milieu which transcends cultural barriers.This stimulating atmosphere awakens students to the subtleties of reaching out and communicating with those of diverse backgrounds.
Ohr Lagolah’s prestigious faculty are eminent scholars, distinguished in their respective fields.Located in Jerusalem, the spiritual and historical center of the Jewish world, Ohr Lagolah draws from among the most talented and highly regarded Jewish educators, communal and spiritual leaders, the “crown jewels” of Jewish education today.
More than just sharing their vast knowledge and experience, these are expert mentors who guide, mold and fire participants into enthusiastic and determined community activists.
Rabbis such as Zev Leff and Berel Wein have four decades of experience as community rabbis in Miami, New York, and today in Israel. The lifetime legacy of the famous Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt’l, as a pulpit rabbi, principle and educator in Israel and abroad, lives on in the Ohr Lagolah audio archives.All three of these great men were educational pioneers who ran schools, which they themselves founded and led communities, which they themselves established! Rabbi Ephraim Oratz is a virtual icon in the world of Jewish education, with over fifty years experience as teacher, principle, and teacher trainer. Rabbi Dovid Kaplan, Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky and Rabbi Noach Orlowek all add their world-renowned talents to the program. These and figures like them enrich Ohr Lagolah with the wealth of actual field experience that they bring to bear and to share.
What The Graduates Say and Do
Rabbi Dr. Steven Gaffin, who entered Ohr Lagolah many years ago holding a PhD in Psychopharmacology and went on into a career of kiruv gave this appraisal of the Ohr Lagolah program while still being trained: “I have been learning in Ohr Somayach for five years and am completing my second and final year in Ohr Lagolah. I have a great enthusiasm for our way of life and believe that I have the skills to communicate the challenge, beauty and fulfillment which is inherent within it. Ohr Lagolah has been vital in developing those skills both through the critical appraisal of presentations and the provision of information not normally emphasized in the traditional yeshiva framework, such as Counseling, Outreach Techniques, Psychology, Logic and Argumentation, and Jewish History.
The course is run in a highly professional manner and the instructors are all leaders in their fields.I have been challenged, surprised and stimulated all the way along.”
Rabbi Zev Kahn, a South African rugby champion who got his start in Ohr Somayach, graduated Ohr Lagolah and plunged into kiruv work in Chicago which eventually led to creating his own kiruv organization. This is what Zev and his wife Hillary have to say about their fast-growing Jewish Education Team (JET): “My goal is to give them a Jewish education, so that they can make educated choices about their lives. College students are very reachable because they generally do not have many responsibilities. Also, they are already in a ‘learning mode’ and are open to new ideas.”
“And we see amazing results, Baruch Hashem; we sent more than 20 students to programs in Eretz Yisrael and the U.S. in our first year.”
Mrs. Kahn is as enthusiastic as her husband, although she is involved from their home. She cooks for Shabbos, including delicious homemade challah, a favorite of the students. “On Shabbos afternoons, students come to our house to schmooze.”
Mrs. Kahn also sets people up for Shabbos in the community, taking great care to match students with suitable families. One family that has hosted JET students, the Herzfelds, are grateful to be involved. “It’s good chinuch for the children; they see that not everyone is observant, and they are eager and enthusiastic to join us in teaching them. They’re even disappointed when we don't have guests coming,” the Herzfelds say.
Just the other week another Ohr Lagolah graduate, Rabbi Johnny Spector, who serves as the youth rabbi of a synagogue in the Bushey suburb of London, visited Ohr Somayach with a large group of teenagers from his community. For the second year in a row these secular youngsters were given an opportunity to ask the Rosh Hayeshiva, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, all of the questions about Judaism on their minds.
An aspect of Ohr Lagolah that is difficult to properly emphasize is the mentoring relationship that continues, as the Ohr Lagolah student becomes the campus mekarev, teacher, the principle, and the rabbi or community leader.Unlike a sociology or computer professor, a true Torah teacher continues to guide his student even after “graduation.”So it is with Ohr Lagolah faculty: Ohr Lagolah graduates in the field typically continue contact with their Jerusalem mentors for difficult halachic questions and inspiration and renewed enthusiasm.
Inspiring People to Kiruv
Each year on the 17th of Tammuz a Yom Iyun on Kiruv is held by Ohr Lagolah in the Ohr Somayach Beis Medrash. Hundreds of talmidim from yeshivos in Yerushalayim come to hear Ohr Lagolah instructors speak on the subject of kiruv and generate an interest in joining the program.
This is one of the ways Ohr Lagolah continues to recruit and develop the kind of dedication and leadership which will hopefully bring many thousands more closer to a Torah life.