“How many people can show up in Times Square and have a mad Jewish party there?” asks Koby Lerner, rhetorically.
The 16-year-old from San Diego will be one of more than 2,000 Jewish teenagers from countries around the world to share in a Havdalah ceremony and spend Saturday night in New York’s iconic neighborhood at Broadway and Seventh Avenue as part of the ninth annual CTeen International Shabbaton, to take place Feb. 24-26. And that’s only a part of a weekend of spirited (and spiritual) celebrations, learning, touring, socializing and more.
Koby recalls the first time he attended the Shabbaton two years ago and his first impression of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y. “At first, it seemed like we didn’t fit in there because we didn’t have black hats and white shirts,” he says. “But it didn’t matter at all to anybody there: They loved us unconditionally. You could feel the love from these random strangers.”
These numbers, according to Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos 302, “are a testament to the dedicated Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries who have worked tirelessly to bring Jewish teens closer to Yiddishkeit.”
In Germany, getting ready for going abroad. This year will see the largest international group to date, including chapters from Moscow, Monaco and Brazil. (CTeen Photo)
Rabbi Mendy Mottal, Chabad emissary of CTeen Paris, is accompanying 207 participants from throughout France to New York. “Each year, the energy and effort that is poured into making this event is incredible,” he says. “Our teens always have an uplifting and inspiring experience, much of which I attribute to the incredible community feeling that Crown Heights offers us.”
This year, for the first time, CTeen will welcome chapters from Moscow, Monaco and Brazil, making this the largest international group ever. And as many as 75 young Israelis are flying to New York.
Rabbi Aizik Rosenfeld of the Marina Roscha Synagogue and Jewish Community Center in Moscow will be accompanied by 22 teens to the Shabbaton, none of whom have ever been to the United States before. “They’re really pumped up,” says Rosenfeld. “New York is like a dream come true; it’s what America means to them.”
The students will be hosted by local families and experience a traditional Shabbat, similar to what it was like for many of their great-grandparents and forefathers, adds the rabbi.
Rabbi Zalman Marcus, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Mission Viejo, Calif., fields questions from participants and parents about what to expect at the three-day event. (CTeen Photo)
“It will be an interesting experience for them, keeping Shabbat from beginning to end,” says Rosenfeld, who moved to Moscow three years ago with his wife, Blumi. He remembers being amazed at “how much liberty there is now, how much openness there is as far as Yiddishkeit in general. Still, the density of Jewish life in Moscow, growing as it is, remains very different from Crown Heights.”
For these young people, he says, every small step—such as putting on tefillinonce a week or observing Shabbat to any extent—is a huge change.
Similar to the Russian students, Rabbi Chai Kohan, head of CTeen Español, adds that “the draw for many arriving from South and Central America is the chance to meet other Jewish teens from around the world. Most of them have never traveled to the United States.”
The worldwide growth of CTeen programs like the Shabbaton is thanks to the Meromim Foundation, spearheaded by Rabbi Bentzi Lipskier. To date, the foundation has sponsored more than 40 CTeen Chabad couples under the “New Shluchim Initiative.”
The Shabbaton comes just days after thousands of women filled Brooklyn as part of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos).
CTeen Côte S. Luc preps in Montreal, Canada (CTeen Photo)
‘Part of Your Journey’
In New York, teens will get to visit some of the city’s major attractions: the Statue of Liberty, the new One World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial, Midtown, Uptown, Downtown and more—and will spend Shabbat learning, eating, praying and getting to know one another.
Participants will also get a tour of Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, and the President Street home and the study of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. And they will visit the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, N.Y.
Teens get an update in Ashkelon, Israel, about the Shabbaton. As many as 75 young Israelis are flying to New York. (CTeen Photo)
Victoria Lamport, 17, from Tampa, Fla., sees the recreational parts of the Shabbaton as intrinsically connected to its more religious aspects. “It’s fun to see all your friends, to reconnect and to meet new people,” she says, “but the spiritual side to it is also the fact that you’re around so many people who are as motivated as you are . . . people who want to help, people who want to be a part of your journey, people doing certain mitzvahs for the first time and seeing how it affects them.”
She has seen that transformative energy work in her own family. “What is really awesome,” says the high school senior, “is that as I started to learn more, my family also got more involved. My dad started having the rabbi over every other week to learn. It’s been amazing to see the impact that Chabad has had on our lives.”
She hopes to spend the summer focusing on Jewish studies before starting a pre-med curriculum at college. “When I’m learning is when I really feel; I can almost feel my neshamah [‘soul’]. I don’t really know how to explain it. I just feel it—like I have a purpose in this world.”
Koby relates how exposure to the strong camaraderie that Victoria describes has been “life-changing.” Last summer, the California native went on the “CTeen Xtreme” summer travel camp out West, staying on afterwards for a yeshivah program. “I liked it so much I decided I didn’t want to go home, so I convinced my parents to let me stay.” Now, Koby lives and learns full-time at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad in Los Angeles.
Koby Lerner of California will join the Shabbaton for a second time. The 16-year-old was also part of “CTeen Xtreme” summer travel camp last year, shown here having a blast. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Youths Into Leaders
For many teens, the inspiration continues long after the Shabbaton is over.
“My daughter, Sydney, was always deathly afraid of getting up to speak, even to our own family,” says Craig Winawer of Dix Hills, N.Y. “Recently, I watched her make a 10-minute speech in front of our of whole shul about CTeen and the Shabbaton. This is a kid who you can barely get to say three words at our Passover seder.”
Ever since Sydney became involved four years ago, her father has watched his shy daughter transform into a real leader. Today, she is member of the CTeen International Board.
A little anxiety, however, isn’t just relegated to teenagers. Brochie Levin of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta in Calgary, Canada, acknowledges that “as a new shlucha to CTeen, I was nervous about bringing in a group for the Shabbaton. But the amount of advice, prep and work that was put into helping us was incredible. Our teens are so excited—and so are we.”
To learn more about CTeen International and the Shabbaton, click here.
The Havdalah ceremony and celebration in Times Square 2014 (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Times Square 2015 (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Times Square 2016 (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
A group on the way from Kiryat Bialik, Israel, for the 2017 Shabbaton (CTeen Photo)