Rabbi Maccabee Avishur, principal of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, knew his students would need support as last week’s news out of Israel spread. So he had an idea. Virtually bringing together 47 yeshivas and Orthodox high schools across the United States and Canada, more than 10,000 students prayed and sang together on the morning of October 13. Zoom screens filled the common rooms and auditoriums of schools across North America for a powerful 30-minute program. Those schools included Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, the Frisch School in Paramus, Naaleh High School for Girls in Fair Lawn, JEC High School in Elizabeth, and SAR in Riverdale.
Rabbi Avishur knew that the students would react to the news of the war in many different ways. “While the world may be with us right now, there are also those that are against us,” Rabbi Avishur said. “And that can feel very isolating for everybody, but especially for students. I wanted them to feel connected to one another. So I reached out to colleagues and friends of mine in Jewish schools across the country. And they were all for it — they were really supportive. “By Tuesday morning, we had over 30 schools signed up already to join in.”
Engineering a Zoom call of this size is challenging, and Rabbi Avishur credits all the school leaders and teachers for making it work by changing schedules, organizing students into one place, and tackling the technology. “Getting the Zoom to work properly was no easy task, and I want to give credit for all those heads of school for stepping up and making it happen, which for some of them was really hard.”
Rabbi Avishur specifically credits three Kushner colleagues, assistant principal Gary Berger, educational advancement director Henny Bochner, and student activities director CM Gerson, for bringing the program to fruition.
One Kushner student in particular, Gabe Besterman of Teaneck, 16, also was very helpful in getting the technology to magnify all the students’ voices in support of Israel. NBC also covered the event, thanks to Erica Rosenfeld, the school’s communications and social media director.
As RKYHS students could see on a large screen in the auditorium, students from all the schools settled down across their Zoom squares as Rabbi Avishur welcomed them. He told them that we were all am echad b’lav echad — one people with one heart.
Using the story of Jacob making peace with his estranged brother Esau as an analogy, the rabbi told the students that there were three steps to take regarding the war in Israel.
“Jacob was very worried that Esau would murder him even after all these years,” he said. “So Jacob prepares in three ways. One is through diplomacy — Jacob brings gifts for Esau and his entourage. Two is by preparing to battle in case he needs to fight. And three is through prayer.”
Rabbi Avishur encouraged the students to take diplomatic action by writing letters to officials, from local members of Congress all the way up to President Biden, and noted that they and their families have raised money and collected material goods to support the IDF.
And even more important, there is prayer. “The prayers of children — and I include teenagers among them — are the most powerful,” Rabbi Avishur said. “There is a level of purity, especially when praying on behalf of the Jewish people.”
In a powerful moment, Rabbi Avishur reminded the students across the continent that this was not a small thing they were doing. “Harness that power today and let your tefillot shake the heavens,” he said.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue joined the Zoom from Florida with a strong message of the importance of the unity. Very moved by the 10,000 students he saw on his computer screen, he told them that “through prayer, our hearts and souls are united and focused on Israel like never before.”
Student representatives from schools on the East and West Coasts, Canada, the South, and the Midwest took turns leading prayers. They recited Psalms 121 and 130, which often are said in times of trouble, and also chanted mishabeirach, a prayer for healing, for the soldiers and the captives.
“Prayer makes a difference in our universe,” Rabbi Avishur said. “It has an impact on us when we pray — and also on others. And I think that was really important for our kids to experience — the power of praying and singing together in a way they had never done before.
“Specifically, because it wasn’t just 10,000 Jews, but because it was 10,000 of their peers. Kids they may know from camp, who look like them, who are living similar experiences despite being in various cities. They are not only connected in those ways, but also through this terrible situation we are experiencing together.”
Rabbi Chaim Marcus of Congregation Israel in Springfield joined the RKYHS students in person to tell a story about some young chasidim in a displaced persons camp after the Holocaust. The group wanted to break the DP camp’s rules by sneaking out into the forest after curfew to dance and sing during chol hamoed Sukkot. A non-observant young Jew, another concentration camp survivor, asked them what they were doing every night as they snuck out. After brushing him off night after night, the chasidic boys finally asked their questioner why he had such a problem with what they were doing. He replied, “The only problem I have is that you haven’t invited me to go with you!” In other words — we’re all Jews.
Rabbi Marcus urged the students to actively work on their love of the Jewish people. “We don’t have to all look the same way or have the same opinions,” he said. “But understand that we are all one family. Work on not speaking ill of one another.
“The division is Israeli politics has been so fierce that it has even bled into American Jewish communities as well. But what we are seeing in Israel right now is the need to put aside those divisions in the face of this threat.”
Linking arms with their friends, swaying and smiling the way only teenagers can, 10,000 students then sang Acheinu (We Are One Family) and Hatikvah in an emotional show of strength. Rabbi Avishur noted that despite Zoom’s imperfect synchronization and the resulting cacophony, it really was beautiful.
The enormous virtual gathering didn’t stop when the Zoom session ended. After the program, the participating schools were asked to make a 10-second video clip, showing all the students, saying their school’s name and sending a positive message of support to Israel. The clips will be put together as a montage. Then each of the students will send that video to at least 100 of their contacts anywhere around the world, in Israel and the Diaspora. “And I know everyone has a network that’s larger than 100 people,” Rabbi Avishur said. “That means we’re going to multiply the impact of this positive message and the positive unity to reach at least one million people.”
Rabbi Avishur’s own son is 19, and in his second year of studying in central Israel. He also is preparing to draft into the army in March. While Rabbi Avishur is very proud and supportive of him, it also obviously is very difficult for him as a parent. The morning of this program, Rabbi Avishur asked him if had changed his mind and wanted to come home. “My son replied, ‘Abba, I am home.’”