Rivka Alt helps teens spy out the leader in themselves.
I entered high school as a typical 14-year-old, focused on all things teenage. Growth was the last thing on my mind. But somehow, I made friends with a group of girls who had more on their minds than shopping and good times. We did that too, but between runs to the mall and slumber parties, we’d grow our quote collection and feistily debate the latest Rabbi Wallerstein shiur.
Then one summer, the head counselor of the day camp I was supposed to work in called me right before camp and asked if I could take on the shiur counselor position for the entire day camp. I was amused; my summers up until that point were about one thing — fun. Teaching was the last thing on my mind. In fact, coming from a family of teachers, my siblings’ favorite way to annoy me (I’m the youngest) was, “Rivka, one day you’re going to be a big teacher, and we’re going to have the last laugh.”
To this day, I wonder which sibling paid off this head counselor to offer me the job, and I still have no idea why I agreed. I just remember pretending that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I actually was.
Once I’d tasted the sweetness of sharing Torah, there was no looking back. By the time I reached my second year of seminary, I could hardly sit through classes. I was itching to get up and teach.
Igniting the Spark
The second-year program I attended in Eretz Yisrael had a daily Aish HaTorah kiruv-training program taught by some of the most prestigious speakers in Yerushalayim, explaining how to give over basic concepts in Yiddishkeit.
Rav Noach Weinberg passed away that year, so I never actually met him, but his teachings definitely had an impact on me. We were girls who were already very committed to Torah, but there was something so empowering about learning in order to give over. The common refrain you’d hear among us after an Aish class was: “Why didn’t we have this in high school when we really needed it...?” Young and idealistic, I started dreaming of somehow bringing this kind of curriculum back with me to high-schools in America.
After seminary, I went back to America and started teaching, but I found myself struggling to keep up with the demands and structure of a classroom. I was still excited about teaching, but I clearly hadn’t found my niche yet.
I hadn’t forgotten the inspiration of our Aish program and my dream to bring kiruv-training classes to high schools. But it became obvious after minimal research that there was no way that little me was going to convince high schools to consider it.
That left one option for me: summers. I mapped out my plan for Summer Sisterhood — a ten-day kiruv-training teen camp for Bais Yaakov girls. Rav Noach had a gift for taking the most complex ideas and giving them over with shockingly simple clarity. I worked on making his ideas user-friendly for Bais Yaakov teens and finding experiential (read: fun!) ways to give them over.
At that point, I realized that what I was trying to do for teens was exactly what Project Inspire was already accomplishing for adults. They empower frum adults to reach out to their secular counterparts, enriching their own Yiddishkeit in the process. I met with Rabbi Sampson of Project Inspire and Summer Sisterhood was soon “in conjunction with Project Inspire.” I ran a booth at Project Inspire’s convention that year, and was all set to go. However, Hashem had better summer plans for me — that June had me standing under the chuppah instead.
I wasn’t ready to give up on Summer Sisterhood just yet. The following summer, in 2013, I put together a small group in Eretz Yisrael, mostly American-Israelis from Ramat Beit Shemesh. It was successful, but I still held on to my original goal of bringing the program to teenagers in America. The following summer we rented a dorm in the Tristate and launched our first group. One of the highlights for the girls was — and continues to be — the opportunity to meet with different Project Inspire speakers throughout the trip.
I Spy a Leader
In 2018, Summer Sisterhood evolved into “WITT: The Program.” WITT, which stands for: Week-long INSPIRE Teen Tours, received a haskamah from Torah Umesorah and went from being called a “kiruv-training” program to a “teen-leadership” program. At that point, we slowed down on the advertising and began to recruit girls with leadership qualities by way of recommendation.
We also added on a second week to the program called “Tristate Leadership Basics.” We focus on basic leadership concepts and the girls have the opportunity to have brief but life-changing meetings with Tristate community leaders, a highlight of the program.
While Rav Noach’s message of leadership forms the kernel of our curriculum, I’ve expanded it to include material from other sources. I’ve gleaned gems from Chovas Hatalmidim by the Piaseczner Rebbe, among others. I also bring the girls hashkafically sound material that leadership authorities in the secular world, such as Steven Covey, Brene Brown, and others, have to offer.
Every year, when I go through the applications, I chuckle because I know that as a teenager, I probably wouldn’t have been recommended, let alone accepted.
Looking back, I’m grateful for the few adults that saw and brought out the leadership qualities in me, and my goal is to do that for teens today. On the website, there’s an “I Spy” tab where anyone can recommend a friend, neighbor, or relative in whom they spy leadership qualities in. Some campers come from that avenue, others from a school-related recommendation, and still others may have seen the ad and “spied out leadership” in themselves.
WITT isn’t exclusively for outgoing girls. While many campers are, others are more introverted. It’s also not about launching anything impressive, although some of them might be inspired to do that eventually. At WITT, leadership is about teens expanding their appreciation for the opportunities they’ll have, including teaching and mothering. It’s also about making the most of their last years of high .school and taking an active role as a student. Mostly, it’s about being our best selves and helping the people around us to do the same.
One camper reported that in a camp that she attended after WITT, she had bunkmates who were very confused about basic hashkafah topics. She was able to test out her leadership skills as she clued them in to some of the important topics we covered. She was moved by her new self-confidence regarding the impact she could have on her peers.
What Do You Do All Day?
My least favorite part of the job is describing to parents and campers what we do in camp. It’s challenging to explain in a phone conversation why a discussion about leadership might have us walking on a bridge, and why a discussion about Shema might bring us to the Spoons restaurant in Boro Park for a quick dessert. It’s hard to describe why WITT is where Dance Dance Revolution meets the Four Misconceptions of Judaism, and JFK meets the Chosen People phenomenon.
Parents want to know, “Do you have lectures part of the day and fun the rest of the day?” No, the girls aren’t sitting through lectures and then making up for it with fun. The fun and learning go together.
We have regular camp activities like swimming, BBQs, camping, and kumzitzes, but it’s impossible to describe WITT as a typical teen summer. We’ll take trips to places like Bear Mountain, Luna Park, and Macy’s, but you might also walk in on us to find a group of teens sitting around in pajamas on an early summer morning, each with an open Mesillas Yesharim in her lap. They’ll be racing to find the line that’s going to jumpstart the day that will be spent at the beach, partly tanning, but also working their brains and creativity, so that by the end of the day, they have Rav Noach’s Five Levels of Pleasure down pat.
Follow the Leader
In the beginning of the year, I got an application from a potential camper, who wrote in her application that she was turning to WITT for “official” leadership training. I suddenly felt insecure. What we’ve been offering so far is leadership exposure, but certainly not yet a comprehensive training program.
All afternoon, while I struggled with my dishes and laundry piles, navigated my way through a child’s tantrum, and wished I had mastered better parenting skills, I heard a sarcastic voice in my head, “Leadership, huh?!”
After a Covid-related hiatus, enrollment had gotten off to a slow start, and the struggle of working remotely was getting to me. I tried a friend and then a mentor, wanting to tell them that I was quitting the whole thing. But none of them answered, and by the next morning, I had my guts back.
I looked in the mirror and said, “Rivka, do you spy a leader in you? Well, then get up, complete the additional programming you’ve been working on with more concrete leadership skills, and offer it for this summer.”
Rav Noach taught: “If you know alef, teach alef.” I’m certainly not the expert at leadership (although I have studied the topic intensively), but I’m happy to share as much as I’ve picked up along the way.
One day, we’d scheduled a roundtable with Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel, and we’d ordered lunch. But I had campers on a gluten-free diet, and I forgot to make arrangements for them.
While the girls were getting a brachah from Rav Dovid Feinstein, I found myself running through Chinatown at top-speed in search of “something, anything, please, Hashem just anything!”
“Anything” turned out to be an apple and peanut butter and a plastic knife
The girls, understandably reluctant to start loudly crunching on apples in Agudath Israel’s boardroom, just sat there politely staring at their apples until their hunger pangs prevailed, and the crunching soundtrack began, along with some glares in my direction. By now, though, I think they’ve forgiven me.
Recent Books I’ve Enjoyed
I’ve surprised myself in recent years by getting hooked on biographies. Rav Shraga Feivel, Mike Tress, Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, Rav Avrohom Pam… it’s so much fun to get a window into their lives and struggles. Nowadays, when I go to the library to take out children’s books, and I know my schedule doesn’t allow for it, I need self-control not only to avoid the novel aisle, but the bio aisle too!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 793)
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