It’s not all downhill

KeneSki offers what some believe to be a ‘life-changing’ experience that entails more than just hitting the slopes.

KeneSki 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/KeneSki)
KeneSki 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/KeneSki)
In the first week of February every year for the past 13 years, throngs of single modern-Orthodox professionals in their late 20s and early 30s have traveled from all over the world to various locations throughout the snow-capped mountains of Europe to bond over a common passion: skiing. These ski aficionados join together for an annual event called Kene- Ski (a combination of the Hebrew word kenes, or convention, and “ski”) for a week on the slopes. The program also offers a wide range of Jewish-themed workshops and classes, and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity for these young adults to meet and interact socially with an international group of their peers.
KeneSki was founded in 1999 by Ilan Roth, who at the time was serving as the European desk director for the Bnei Akiva youth movement, based in Jerusalem.
Roth, who had just returned to Israel from a two-year stint as a Bnei Akiva emissary in Vienna, learned firsthand that young people in Europe “have skiing in their blood.” However, according to Roth, opportunities for observant Jews to hit the slopes were limited since most organized ski getaways involve skiing on Shabbat and lack a kosher food option.
So Roth, along with two friends who were in the travel business, decided to fill that void by organizing a week-long ski trip that took into account the needs of the observant young adult Jewish community. In its first year, 67 participants – both singles and couples – registered for the trip. Roth admits that the goal at the time was simply to combine skiing with Jewish educational programming, but over the years the trip has evolved into a gathering of global Jewish single young professionals who are looking to make friends and possibly meet “the one.”
This year’s trip, which was held at a resort hotel in Canazei, Italy, drew 160 participants from countries including Israel, the US, England, South Africa, Australia and throughout Europe.
While all the participants were single, Shani Falik- Roth, Ilan’s wife and co-director of the program, insists that the setting of KeneSki is so “natural, easy and relaxed and that there is no pressure put on participants in terms of dating or marriage.” In fact, she says that every year she is approached by matchmakers and life-coaches who are willing to pay to join the group in order to offer their services, but she always turns them down. Nevertheless, according to Falik-Roth, on average KeneSki produces three to four weddings a year. She adds that “The results speak for themselves. We must be doing something right.”
Thirty-one-year-old Jerusalem resident Shoshi Rushnevsky has been attending KeneSki for the past five years. She describes the experience as “life changing.”
She adds that, “I keep coming back to KeneSki because I love to ski, but more so I love the environment and the quality of the people.” Rushnevsky, who works as a computer consultant in Tel Aviv, says that 90 percent of her social network of friends today consists of people she met on KeneSki or are friends of friends she made on the trip. Nearly two weeks after returning home, Rushnevsky says that she still feels a high from the trip, and she along with many others have had trouble concentrating at work since they are too busy uploading pictures or communicating with their KeneSki friends on Facebook.
While Rushnevsky doesn’t know yet if she found “the one” on this trip, she does admit that “there is potential.”
She also notes that since nearly half of the participants on the trip are Israeli, those not living in Israel become inspired to consider aliya.
“People make Israeli friends and, with a network in Israel, aliya becomes a serious option,” she says. Falik- Roth adds that several participants have in fact made aliya after their KeneSki experiences and “their absorptions were much easier with friends on the ground in Israel.”
WHEN NOT on the slopes – during the evening hours and on Shabbat – KeneSki offers various stimulating workshops and sessions led by a scholar-in-residence who joins the group for the week. Recent guests have included National Security Adviser Ya’akov Amidror, Rabbi Benny Lau and The Jerusalem Post’s political reporter Gil Hoffman. In fact, according to Ilan Roth, “Shabbat becomes the highlight of the week, with prayer services, meals, songs, lectures and, most importantly, true camaraderie” off the slopes.
In addition to the educational programming, this year’s trip had an extra element making, it according to Rushnevsky “the most meaningful year ever.” This year KeneSki teamed up with Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization committed to rehabilitating seriously wounded IDF soldiers and victims of terror through sport, and invited four of Tikvot’s “heroes” – three wounded soldiers and one victim of terror – to partake in the program.
According to Assaf Halevi, a Tikvot board member and volunteer who represented the organization on the trip, the Tikvot members “immediately meshed with the other KeneSki participants and made new friendships regardless of their disabilities.”
Simone Farbstein, who is Tikvot’s director, was thrilled to collaborate with KeneSki. “Our belief is that sport is the most effective tool for rehabilitation, particularly in order to instill self-confidence and integrate our victims back into society.” In addition, Farbstein and Halevi both feel that since KeneSki caters to the needs of the religious community, the program was a perfect match for several of Tikvot’s more observant victims. Halevi, who has much praise for the Roths for welcoming and accommodating the special needs of his group members, hopes that Tikvot will be able to participate in next year’s trip as well.
According to Falik-Roth, KeneSki has become more than just a once-a-year ski trip, but is almost a “movement,” with unofficial reunions and activities held throughout the year. “They do this themselves,” says Shani. “Whether it’s get-togethers, shabbatonim, trips, etc. This happens between groups of KeneSki friends in their home countries all over the world.” In addition, there is always contact via social networking.”
For both Ilan and Shani Roth, KeneSki is a labor of love. They both have full-time jobs, so they volunteer to put together the trip together completely in their spare time. The Roths also have four children under the age of four, adding to their busy schedules. While Falik- Roth admits that the two months of intense planning that go into each year’s trip can be exhausting, “it is such a high to take a step back and watch all of the hard work and endless hours of planning come together.”
She adds that “to see old friends chatting or new friendships forming is amazing. Watching 160-plus participants spending one intense week together and truly becoming one large international family is amazing beyond words. Ilan and I both feel it is a huge zechut [privilege] to be involved. We know that we are impacting the lives of so many year after year. And to attend a wedding of two KeneSki participants – that is the highlight.”
Ilan Roth agrees with his wife’s sentiments. “In one word,” he says, “it’s genuine nahat [fulfillment].”