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Not even the half of it

IT all began four years ago, it was so early in the morning it was still dark outside with a nip of cold air sending a shiver down your spine. It was airport pick-up time, when we would be standing huddling outside the house on the front porch whispering our final farewells and blowing kisses in the air ‘till the car was out of sight.

It was airport pick-up time, sending my little brother Chaim and his Denver boyhood friends, Benjy and Netanel, off to Skokie yeshiva in Chicago. Or, as it is belovedly known for generations to all who are connected to the Skokie community: “The Yeshiva,” pronounced with a special midwestern Chicagoan lilt — it has become like a code that instantaneously connects the Skokie affiliated.

As the years passed, we watched this fantastic group, The Boys (or later to be nicknamed “The Airport Overnighters”), grow and develop in their service of G-d, in their Torah study, in the development of their maturing personalities. These high school years are formative years. Indeed, it seems these years truly formed four (the three were soon joined by Mason Wedgle) beautiful strong bnei Torah out of those young adolescents just post-Bar Mitzvah kids who were off to yeshiva on a dark early morning four years ago.

Graduation day has come and gone, and these now four fine young men are officially part of the Skokie generations, for it is a community-family feeling spread across the Jewish world both spiritually and geographically and goes back, literally, generations.

SOMETHING remarkable and intangible comes across in the atmosphere of this yeshiva. “The Yeshiva” celebrates the end of the year with a siyum, and I surprised Chaim for it (now that is a separate story — a little Ferris Bueller moment we had there in Chicago, the land of Ferris Bueller).

Never in my life have I seen a bunch of teenagers genuinely love their yeshiva so much (this was beyond school spirit). Never in my life have I seen teenage boys bound together in warm and mature friendships such as these. They truly care about the happiness and well being of their classmates.

And never have I seen a bunch of kids have this much pure wholesome Torah spirited fun before.

The atmosphere at the siyum was simply rocking! It was electric and palpable. For over a good three hours there, it was an unprompted, spontaneous expression of simcha (not guided by the teachers, who sat dignified at the head table in the auditorium) of combining the hooting of a Rockies game, intense hakafos of Simchas Torah and the leibedig joy and dancing of a Jewish wedding.

These kids cheered their fellow friends in their stellar Torah study like nobody’s business. Be it a large quantity of data (for example two students completed the entire Mishna during their four years of high school, while simultaneously excelling in college level secular studies) to a more modest quantity of data, they were all cheered with equal enthusiasm and support by the students. Not a trace of jealousy or unease could be felt.

Honestly, these boys were so immersed in their merry making, I am not so sure the kids even cared that much about the recognition of the awards per se, truly it was lishma, for the sake of heaven, for the love of learning.

I was inspired.

WHEN a highlight of the evening arrived, the moment announcing the long awaited bochur of the year, a collective shout of joy erupted, the happiness of the class for the recognition of their beloved friend, Noam Itzhak.

I know my brother in the role of “my good little youngest brother,” not as the mischevious ru’ach leader who led his classmates dancing their friend raised on a chair in full chasidic regalia, like a groom is danced from his badekin, out the school building, into the yard, all the time the group dancing and encircling the chair serenading their friend like the sage of the century (“yamim al yemei melech . . . ”).

I know Benjy Mehler as the confident, good humored and personable family friend I see in shul or share a Shabbos meal with here and there, not as the life-of-the-party kid, rocking the cheering away.

Mason, too, I know him as a family friend who is very warm, thoughtful and considerate, easy to talk to and quite humble, now suddenly I see him with his peer group, so full of ru’ach (school spirit) having a ball with his chevra (yeshiva crowd).

And Netanel, who was once upon a time quite quiet, now coming up to me and initiating a smiling hello, and clearly, he too, a natural part of the evenings fun.

It’s hard to send such young kids away. Understandably, things come up: Being sick away from home. Missing a flight and getting stranded at the airport late at night! and the parents worried here and there (fine, I confess, your truly, too). Nonetheless, I used to try to reassure my parents and some of the others not to worry so much (of course, it wasn’t my word that was ever reassuring in comparison to that of Rabbi Josh Zisook, who over the years became the unofficial 1-800 Josh Zisook help line). I would tell them that The Boys were having a great time over there. Perhaps even better than the parents wanted to imagine! And I believed that.

Once I went to the siyum and saw the wonderfulness for myself, though, I realized I hadn’t realized the extent! Apparently I didn’t know the half of it.

AND all of this Skokie brotherhood, friendship and spirit, all while these boys were growing interpersonally, developing spiritually and achieving academically. Throughout these four rich years, these students’ confidence and curiosity has been cultivated, nurtured and refined.

An additional special dimension is the strong bonds Skokie kids —and all the dorm boys — forged with the Chicago community, especially the Skokie families, with the open home policy that these families promoted, inviting the out-of-towners to feel a part of their families and homes.

There was always something going on at Skokie, too, be it building sukkot for families in the community, participating in Shabbatons in the community, doing chesed at Yachad Shabbatons or listening to a renowned guest speaker who visited “The Yeshiva.”

Through it all, multiple sports teams, the occasional late Thursday night cholent making, the extracurricular activities, the serious and impressive accomplishments  of the class in secular studies, and so much more, it was the beis medrash of the yeshiva that remained the core of Skokie. In these four years, with the guidance of all the warm and caring teachers (I have still not been privy to the senior class joke about calling one of their teachers RAMZAG), these boys morphed into budding students of Torah, bnei Torah.

What can I say? Skokie is a yeshiva with a spirit and a soul. The place humms with an aliveness, and I am so grateful to Skokie for the wonderful years my brother had there and the fraternal bonds he formed.

Hopefully these years at “The Yeshiva” will have turned out to be a strong foundation of learning, growing and success for the years to come please G-d.

I wish the entire Skokie class of 2011 much happiness and blessing.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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