By M. Lowinger
It’s the third largest city in Ohio and home of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. But the people at Project Inspire will tell you that what’s most special about Cincinnati is its warm and welcoming Jewish community. And they ought to know. Because they recently visited that community for a Shabbos of Inspiration with a delegation of outreach professionals and non-professionals. The purpose of their visit? To inspire the community so that they can in turn learn to inspire others.
Project Inspire is a grassroots organization dedicated to activating the Torah community to reach out to our fellow Jews to help stem the tide of assimilation. By providing tools, opportunities, and training, Project Inspire encourages frum Jews to form a grassroots kiruv movement and help change the world. Armed with our warmth, caring, and ahavas yisroel, all of us can do outreach.
There are approximately three hundred Orthodox families currently living in Cincinnati out of a population of about 17,000 Jews. “What’s nice here,” explains Kayla, who recently moved to Cincinnati from Eretz Yisroel, “is that we are a full thriving community of bnei Torah. Walk into the Yeshiva shul, and you’ll find a hundred guys in black hats, most of who are working while still being koveyah ittim bnei Torah. It’s a community of yirei shomayim who have made the choice to live here, so we’re not stranger-phobic. And we want to reach out to others.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Preis is Director of Outreach for the Cincinnati Kollel. “Our community,” he says, “is already heavily involved in various outreach endeavors. People regularly host college students and other guests. But we were looking to broaden and deepen the involvement. We are b’H such a capable community and we have so much to offer.”
It was Lori Palatnik of the Jewish Woman’s Renaissance Project, who recommended that Rabbi Preis get in touch with Rabbi Chaim Sampson, Director of Project Inspire. It turned out to be a great shidduch. “He shares our vision,” says Rabbi Preis.
Thus was a Shabbos of Inspiration planned, which would involve the participation of members of the community’s shuls. Among the highlights of the program were a Q and A panel discussion with the people of Project Inspire, a presentation by Rabbi Sampson, an Oneg Shabbos with an inspirational program, a Melave Malka with video presentations, and a Sunday morning brainstorming sessions.
Most inspiring, perhaps, were the presentations made by the non-professionals who were making a huge difference by reaching out. “The community wanted to meet regular people who are doing this,” explains Rabbi Sampson, “so we brought along Moishe Horowitz, the Kleins, and Tzippi Reifer from Boro Park, the Weisses from Toronto, the Zakutinskys from Flatbush, and Robin Meyerson from Arizona.
These are the people who have enriched their own lives by reaching out to others, each in their own way. Their stories were fascinating, heartwarming, and tremendously inspiring. Says Kayla, “These were regular people with jobs and lives and kids, and yet they do this anyway. It was so nice to hear that.” Kayla says that the presentation of Mrs. Reifer was especially riveting. “Nobody wanted her to stop talking!”
Estee Klein, who lives in Boro Park, had never been to Cincinnati before and says “I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a really nice community and so welcoming. We were really able to relate to them. And they were very receptive.”
Estee notes that by and large the community is focused and very determined. “It’s a really strong community,” she notes, “and very shtark. A real mokom Torah. You literally felt like you were in the middle of Lakewood. And they are serious about their mission to reach out to others.”
A highlight of the weekend’s program was a powerful and emotional presentation by Mr.Steve Rosedale, a distinguished member of the Cincinnati community who is also a ba’al teshuva. He described how he first opened an Artscroll gemorah and saw a picture of a gate on the front page. “If only,” he said to himself, “I could enter these gates.” It was a silent plea to the Ribono Shel Olam to help him master the study of Torah. Today, he is indeed learning Torah and is quite proud of his son who is a budding talmid chochom.
More than anything else, the Cincinnati Shabbos of Inspiration presented an opportunity for questions to be answered and suggestions to be considered. “We took an important first step,” says Kayla. “And we bounced ideas off each other.”
What’s next for the Cincinnati community? Plenty, says Kayla. “We are offering opportunities for people to sign up for different projects and to get more involved. We’re planning to form a steering committee. We’ll also be forming a chat group of people who wish to be more proactive in attending community events and meeting other Jewish families who live in the area. “ Plans are also underway to expand the community’s Torah partner program.
“It’s all about developing relationships,” explains Estee. “Gestures of friendship like remembering someone’s birthday or making a phone call to inquire about their health are not threatening but are so meaningful. It shows that we all respect each other.”
As it turned out, Estee had a golden opportunity to practice what she preached during the Shabbos program. “One of the students from the local campus,” she says, “asked if he could bring his girlfriend to shalishudis. It was her first time attending the program and she was very excited and loving it. We asked her if she had ever been to New York and it turned out she had in fact been trained as a yoga instructor in Crown Heights. It so happened that I had also trained in Crown Heights, so we had something in common. After Shabbos, we exchanged contact information and I’m already texting with her .” For the Cincinnati community, that quick encounter turned out to be a hands on lesson in Kiruv 101. And for Estee, it was just another opportunity to touch the heart of a fellow Jew.
All in all, says Rabbi Sampson, the Cincinnati weekend turned out to be a huge success. “We are planning a calendar of events and campaigns for throughout the year, perhaps also a big Jewish unity event. Meanwhile, we hope that members of the community will participate in the Shabbos Project and some have signed up for one on one learning.”
The leadership of the Cincinnati Kollel and the members of Project Inspire plan to translate the initial inspiration into long-lasting action. “I would say that the Shabbos of Inspiration was ultimately a collaboration,” says Kayla. “We bounced ideas off each other and we worked together to personalize the experience for our community.”
Estee points out that the leadership of Project Inspire “did their homework. They understand the needs of that particular community. They recognize that it’s not one size fits all. They go in and listen and adapt a program according to a community’s needs.
Rabbi Sampson sees Cincinnati as a pilot program. “We could do this elsewhere,” he says. “We’d be happy to take this model of a Shabbos of Inspiration to other communities so they too can benefit from the inspiration and the Kiddush Hashem.” A Shabbos of Inspiration is already being planned for Baltimore sometime this winter.
Says Rabbi Sampson, “ We are ready to spread the movement everywhere.”
For more information about the many programs of Project Inspire including the Shabbos of Inspiration, contact them at 646 291 6191 or visit projectinspire.com.