Nearly a foot of snow didn't stop more than 600 teenagers from around the United States, Canada, Europe and even Nigeria from warming the icy streets of New York City over a weekend of learning, entertainment and inspiration at the CTeen (Chabad Teen Network) International Teen Shabbaton. For many of the boys and girls who traveled with their local Chabad directors, it wasn't only Shabbat they fully experienced for the first time together. Some from warmer climates also sighted their first snow storm, which turned the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., into a wintery white scene on Friday night.
"They were saturated with Jewish life and Judaism for the whole weekend," said Rochel Susskind, co-director of Chabad of Vernon Hills, Ill., who attended with a group of 10 teenagers. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
The program began with a trip to Manhattan on Friday, and continued with Shabbat meals and late-night gatherings, workshops, classes and roundtable discussions with rabbis and renowned speakers, including TV producer Molly Resnick and basketball star Tamir Goodman. The two spoke about putting their love for Judaism before their careers.
"Both speakers were off the chain," said Gabby Veytsman from Dallas, Texas. "I was sitting there and my jaw dropped."
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Daniel Olex, a teenage wrestler from Vernon Hills, Ill., said he decided to start wearing a yarmulka when he wrestles in honor of Goodman, who spoke to the group about his belief that wearing one helps him win games.
Despite the snowy streets, 14 buses headed to Times Square on Saturday night for a communal Havdalah ceremony marking the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath; then, everyone boarded two Manhattan cruise ships—one for the girls and one for the boys—that offered scenic views of New York’s skyline, a lavish dinner, music and entertainment. On Sunday morning, the teens visited the Ohel, the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and then the group toured traditional factories and shops in Crown Heights, home to the Chabad community in Brooklyn, followed by a farewell banquet brunch.
A group of teenagers from Texas shared some of the weekend’s more touching moments, such as offering a homeless man a CTeen sweater outside a store on Canal Street in Chinatown. With the help of one of the group leaders, Rabbi Dovid Weinbaum, they also assisted a woman carrying heavy furniture to the train, followed by handing out lunch to a man on the subway who was asking riders for a donation.
"We said: ‘Here's money and lunch, and now ask people to do mitzvahs, good deeds, when you make your requests," said Stephanie Blitshtein from Plano, Texas.
"We did mitzvah after mitzvah," said her sister, Vicky Blitshtein. "Every step we took we did something to help someone else."
At one point, they met a Jewish woman sharing their train who was affected by Hurricane Sandy. They told her of their plans to light Shabbat candles later that day before sunset and asked her to light simultaneously at home, promising to stay in touch.
"While having a good time, it's important to help someone else and pay it forward," said Weinbaum.
For some teens, inspiration came from not using their cell phones all Shabbat in respect of Judaism’s laws prohibiting the use of electronics during the holy day and, for some of the young men, spending a few hours studying Jewish texts with yeshivah students. A group of boys who donned tefillin for the first time rejoiced with a group of fellow attendees who danced around them at the welcoming banquet.
"They were saturated with Jewish life and Judaism for the whole weekend," said Rochel Susskind, co-director of Chabad of Vernon Hills, Ill., who attended with a group of 10 teenagers. "After experiencing Shabbat, they really understood it."
The Havdalah ceremony took place in the center of Times Square, surrounded by the flashing lights and billboards, including an overhead display with photos and quotes from CTeens. Nigerian participant Shoshana Ozamadou held the candle high, lighting the way for the Shabbaton participants.
"This is the greatest gathering of Jewish youth," said Talya Gordon, a CTeen from Atlanta, Ga., addressing the crowd before the ceremony. "The Havdalah torch is made of many wicks combined together as one flame. We're each a different wick, but together, we're united as a flame."
More than 600 teenagers from around the United States, Canada, Europe and even Nigeria enjoyed a weekend of learning, entertainment and inspiration.(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
The CTeen program was launched five years ago with 60 people, including 30 teens, at an initial gathering in New York. Since then, it has grown to accommodate more than 600 teenagers for its annual weekend Shabbaton, with many Chabad Houses around the world connecting with local chapters. The teens interact through year-round events, including trips, parties, holidays and community service.
Vicky Blitshtein, who volunteers for her local Chabad House in Texas and won a trip to the Shabbaton, traveled to New York for the first time and spoke to the entire CTeen group that weekend about not giving up on one's achievements.
"In Texas, I go to two Chabad centers, but I have never seen it on this scale," she said. "To learn more about Chabad and Judaism is very uplifting."