Samuel Kalnitz and Georg Khokholyev have a lot in common: both are 17, both love basketball and both share an affinity for rappers Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. However, it was their love of Torah and personal growth that bound these two teenagers — each from a different part of the world — together.
Geographically, the two couldn’t have been farther apart. Samuel hails from a Jewish suburb in Atlanta, Georgia, while Georg lives with his family in Gronau, Germany, a small town of 40,000 where he and his mother are the only Jewish people. The two met during the summer of 2013 while Samuel was part of NCSY Summer’s JOLT (Jewish Overseas Leadership Training) program. One of NCSY’s oldest and most successful programs, JOLT takes several dozen select Jewish teenagers to visit the concentration camps in Poland. Afterwards, the teens run a camp for unaffiliated Jewish teenagers from Germany called Am Echad, and then spend the last two weeks of the summer in Israel. During the weeklong camp experience, Samuel and Georg struck up an easy friendship because of their shared interests. As the summer wound down, Samuel asked Georg if he would like to keep in touch via Skype; Georg had a better idea: why not continue learning during the year?
Samuel readily agreed, though as busy teenagers, they were skeptical about the long-term possibilities of a long-distance chavrutha. “I’ll admit, it was kinda tough starting out,” said Samuel. The only possible time for Georg was at nine in the evening, which was smack in the middle of Samuel’s Sunday afternoon.
“I first thought this is going to last for two weeks and after we’ll lose contact,” Georg added. Having such a late-night chavrutha also meant he would need to be up an extra hour to finish his schoolwork.
But the two persevered and as they spent an hour learning Tanach with each other every week, they found their friendship deepening.
“It wasn’t just learning,” stated Samuel. “It was like a beis medrash. You form a relationship.”
“Our friendship grew even bigger,” explained Georg. “It developed each time we learnt.”
As the year progressed, Samuel realized he wanted to see his friend again and, concerned for Georg’s summer prospects, planned on inviting him to America for the summer. When that didn’t pan out and Samuel ended up applying to NCSY Kollel in Israel, he decided to bring his friend with him.
While Georg was open to the idea of joining Samuel on NCSY Kollel, there were some hurdles. Germany’s school year is different than America and Georg would have to get permission to take off from the Catholic school he attended. In addition, Georg needed a scholarship for the program. With the help of Samuel’s family and the national NCSY office, the two managed to overcome all the issues. (Rabbi Eli Zians, director of NCSY’s JOLT, sent the Catholic school a note that NCSY Kollel would be good for Georg’s spiritual development and help with his English.)
Rabbi Chaim Neiditch, regional director of Greater Atlanta NCSY, said, “We are very proud of Sam. It is wonderful to see how he has grown and internalized the lessons he’s learned in NCSY to reach out to others.”
Last summer the two were again inseparable as they spent the summer learning in NCSY Kollel. Admittedly, transitioning from Am Echad, which caters to non-affiliated Jewish teenagers, to the intense learning experience of NCSY Kollel was difficult for Georg.
“When Sam asked me to go on Kollel with him, he told me that we’re going to play basketball the whole day and learn a little bit,” Georg laughed. “It ended up being the exact opposite: we learned almost the whole day and played a little bit of basketball.”
Rabbi Zians called the transition from Am Echad to NCSY Kollel “unheard of.”
“This has never happened before,” said Rabbi Zians. “Because of their friendship, Georg went to Israel for the first time and experienced Judaism in such a rich way.”
The experience was especially powerful for both boys given the situation in Israel, since the country was then in the throes of a war in Gaza.
The highlight for Samuel came during one of NCSY Kollel’s wilderness trips, where he and some friends jumped off a cliff into a pristine pool of water.
“I swam to the side and Georg jumped off and swam up to me. He said, ‘Thank you for inviting me,’” recalled Samuel. “I thought to myself all this work paid off. Look at the impact I’ve had on him and his family. It made me feel really proud.”
Since his time on NCSY Kollel, Georg says he has a different perspective on his religion. “I didn’t grow up in a Jewish community in Germany,” he explained. “In German society most things are held on Saturdays — birthdays and other things. After NCSY Kollel, I started to hold Shabbat more often than I did before.”
“We grew together,” Samuel said. “When you go on the journey and you take initiative, you grow in the same direction.”
Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY, said that the friendship between the two is emblematic of what NCSY does. “We take Jews from around the world and show that despite our superficial differences, the Jewish people are all am echad, one nation,” he said.
Next year Samuel will be attending yeshiva in Israel. Georg isn’t sure what his plans are yet. But no matter what happens, the two have the memories of the time they shared together and of course, the weekly chavrutha that they still maintain.