From the start of Elul through Shemini Atzeret, we recite Psalm 27. There we read, “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent God’s Temple” (Psalm 27:4). On a simple level, when meditating on this we are beseeching God to allow us to return and stay in the Temple. Do any of us pretend to understand what it was like to be in the Temple? What are we really asking for?
Maybe we are seeking the feeling of home.
My name is Avi Orlow. Over 20 years ago, I was honored to start as a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) while its beit midrash, or study hall, was still nascent. There, I felt that sense of home described in Psalm 27. I came to YCT with a deep love for the Jewish people, and thanks to my education there, I left it years later with a profound appreciation for what Judaism has to offer humanity. I look back fondly at how after every class we would discuss how we might transmit the experience of YCT’s spiritual environment to the outside world.
Many of us yearn to create a sense of home in multiple areas of our lives. For me, I have attempted to replicate that feeling of comfort in both my professional and personal spheres. It is not surprising, then, that my professional growth has run parallel to that of my family. The same spring I was ordained by YCT in 2004, I became a new father. I was fortunate enough to have our son’s bris, and then his pidyon haben, at YCT. Soon after these events and my graduation, our growing family packed up our books, the BabyBjörn, and our life in New York as we prepared to take on the bigger world.
Along the way, my career has taken me all over the country. First, I spent four years as a Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis where we opened our home to students. While I loved working on campus, I moved on when given the chance to impact how thousands of young people every summer understand Jewish camp to be their home away from home. I have spent the last 13 years at Foundation for Jewish Camp where I have traveled the country learning from and with Jewish camps all over North America about how to spread joyous Judaism. During that time, my wife and I have been blessed with three more amazing children.
While I have helped build the home that is my family, I have never forgotten the home I knew at YCT. My connection to YCT has waxed and waned over time, but I have always stayed curious as to the successes and challenges of my fellow alumni in our efforts to bring the goodness of the YCT beit midrash to the world. Many of us started at YCT with little more than a vision for what Open Orthodoxy could mean. In some moments, I haven’t always been sure how much impact our small school has had on the world.
Recent events, however, have made me realize that the home we all built together at YCT is being realized in unforeseen ways across generations.
A few weeks ago, I was picking up some of my children at the Camp Stone bus stop in White Plains, New York, where I live. I was expecting to see the usual neighborhood YCT suspects: Rabbis Jack Nahmod (‘05), Seth Braunstein (‘06), and YCT faculty member Chaim Marder. Our children are all friends from the neighborhood and we send them to the same camp.
I was surprised, however, when I spotted Rabbi Seth Winberg (‘11), the executive director of Brandeis Hillel, at the stop. It was his daughter Hadas’s first summer at camp so she had flown there. She had assumed, however, that she would know people on the way home, so she came back on the White Plains bus. Rabbi Seth had come in from Boston to pick her up. As we chatted and caught up, the buses rolled up the street. Rabbi Seth found Hadas, and I found my daughter Emunah. I asked Emunah if she knew Hadas. She responded, “Of course I do, Abba! We just sat next to each other on the nine-hour ride home from camp.” What are the odds, I thought to myself!
When we got home, Emunah did not want to talk with us. We were not surprised. She just wanted to talk with her camp friends. She talked with her friend Amollia for over an hour. Later that night, she was having trouble falling asleep. It turns out that when you work in camping as I do, your kids do not get homesick at camp. Rather, they get campsick at home. To calm her down, I asked her to go through a list of her friends. I stopped her when she told me about Amolia Antine from Maryland. Her father, Rabbi Nissin Antine (‘06), from Potomac, was ordained two years after me at YCT. Truly, what a very small world! It was astonishing to me that, without any direction or interference from me, my child had just naturally gravitated toward the children of other YCT rabbis.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
Emunah discovered these people on her own. She is her own person, and she is finding friends who share her interests and her values. It is amazing to see the emergence of the next generation of YCT as our children build their own community.
This time of year, when I get to L’David 27, I reflect on how the world is sometimes a very big and a very scary space. I cannot say that I want to hide from it in the Temple, but there is a part of me that yearns for the comfort and holiness of the beit midrash I knew as a rabbinical student. I know that the YCT rabbis are each doing what we can to share this experience of home from the beit midrash with the larger world. And while I might not be able to gaze upon the beauty of our children’s “house of tomorrow,” I find that even a glimpse is heartwarming, affirming, and worthy of meditation.