What do you get when you combine the collective energy
of over 100 college students from 49 campuses across North America? In
some settings, one might find a giant frat party. In others, perhaps a
small demonstration or a lot of nervous tension before a final exam. In
the case of USCJ’s KOACH Kallah, one finds serious learning, intense
discussions, spirited davening, and a lot of fun.
the past 12 years, college students have gathered for the annual KOACH
Kallah (gathering), which took place this past February at Northwestern
University in suburban Chicago. (Previous kallot have been held at
campuses such as George Washington University, University of Southern
California, University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Hofstra
University, Rutgers University and the University of Miami.) With "Tzedakah
guru" Danny Siegel as our scholar-in-residence, students had the
opportunity not only to study Jewish texts on tzedakah but to actually
apply these texts to real-life situations.
While hearing from Siegel and four "mitzvah heroes,"
students participated in a wide variety of social action projects designed
to complement both the text study and the presentations. Long Island
resident Syd Mandlebaum, the founder of Rock and Wrap It Up, told students
how a visit to Israel with his father, a Holocaust survivor, motivated him
to do more with his already full life. A scientist involved in cancer
research and an inventor credited with numerous patents (including the
device which measures the distance of home runs hit in major league
ballparks), Mandelbaum now devotes much of his time to working with rock
stars who agree to have written into their contracts that leftover food
from the lavish buffets provided after concerts be donated to local
agencies combating hunger. Mandelbaum motivated several students to
contact their Hillel Foundations and university food services about doing
P.K. Beville joined the group from Atlanta, where she
heads an organization called Second Wind Dreams. Beville has dedicated her
life to treating the elderly with dignity. Her group contacts nursing home
residents and provides them with an opportunity to enrich their lives by
fulfilling certain dreams. It was with great delight that students watched
a video of a 90-year-old blind woman
dream it was to ride all of the roller coasters at Six Flags over Georgia
(the CNN cameraman filming the event took ill after the second ride) or
the 80-something former truck driver who wanted to push an 18-wheeler over
100 miles per hour (arrangements were made with local law enforcement to
enable him to fulfill his dream). While visiting the elderly later that
day, students were able to understand that regardless of age, the promise
of a future and personal interaction can go a long way toward helping
On Friday night, Ranya Kelly, known as "The Shoe Lady
of Denver," told students about a life-changing experience stemming from
accidently stumbling upon a dumpster behind a prominent shoe store chain
where she saw 500 pair of shoes being discarded. As a result of her
activism, Kelly now oversees the distribution to the needy of thousands of
items deemed to be unfit for sale (out-of-date fashion, maufacturers’
seconds, etc.). On Shabbat afternoon, Greg Siegman of Chicago, founder of
the 11-10-02 Foundation, told students how personal rejection from the
college of his choice motivated him to work with underprivileged students
from the inner-city, working to break down racial stereotypes and to
provide them with college scholarships. These messages were not lost on
KOACH students, many of whom who find themselves in positions of influence
on their own college campuses.
kallah was more than a series of presentations. On Friday afternoon,
students fanned out across the Chicago area to do their own tzedakah work.
From baking hamentashen with residents of the Kagan Jewish Home for the
Blind to leading Kabbalat Shabbat services with residents of the Lieberman
Home for the Elderly, students left a strong impression across the city.
Rabbi Norman Lewison, chaplain at St. Joseph’s Hospital, said that
patients who received shalakh manot from KOACH were talking about the
visits for days. Administrators at the Salvation Army, the Boys’ and
Girls’ Club and a local Warming Center were tremendously grateful for the
painting and maintenance performed. Students who helped provide AIDS
awareness packets for the not-for-profit BeHIV organization were also able
to engage in some frank discussions on Judaism and sexuality.
"Being in college is such a uniquely empowered time in
our lives," said Amy Schneider of North Brunswick, NJ, a student at
Brandeis University. "Having programs which channel that empowerment in
terms of campus leadership, that is what made this weekend incredible. We
have the vision to change the world, and now we have the means to do it."
Not only did students like Schneider participate in
their own personal tzedakah programs, but they were also able to study
Jewish texts in "Torah L’shma" sessions (study for it’s own sake) led by
KOACH staff and visiting educators, including representatives from the
Jewish Theological Seminary, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and
Chicago area rabbis, Northwestern University professors and other
Lest one think that the kallah was an entirely serious
undertaking, it is important to note that students had a wonderful time
socializing and getting to know peers from across the continent. After a
spirited Shabbat, students gathered at a facility in Chicago to eat pizza,
play indoor beach volleyball, basketball, pool, darts and more. On Sunday
morning, the weekend was capped by preparing Passover packages which were
sent to Jewish members of the armed forces serving in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia
and Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.
"It’s wonderful to be with fellow Jewish university
students learning about Judaism," said Sarah Kader, who hails from Tempe,
AZ, and is a student at the University of Arizona.
"This weekend was a dream come true for me," echoed
Liza Zolot of Colorado Springs, an alumna of the KOACH birthright israel
trip and a student at Illinois Weslyan University. "This is a difficult
time in the semester, and there is no better source than this kallah for
much needed inspiration and spirituality."
Toronto native Elisheva Gould seemed to sum it all up.
"This conference is so important that all Conservative Jewish college
students must take advantage of it. I learned a great deal and have made
several close, wonderful friends."
As for Danny Siegel, who puts on thousands of miles
each year speaking to audiences across the globe? "A highlight of my year.
What spectacular kids and what a beautiful staff you have created. Yishar