Jewth Involvement

*USYers in Israel* -- Post by Melissa

As a blizzard rolled into Denver, I had the joy of being with a group of kids involved in the youth groups here. A few kids were working on homework on one side of the room, while others worked on a scrapbook from the years events at a table in the kitchen. Watching these kids give up some of their afternoon to be together at the youth center, reminded me of how amazing Jewish youth involvement can be.

I have the great honor of being able to regularly staff USY, Kadima, and Atid events for the Mile High chapter.  The kids who are involved are all wonderful and love being involved.  It is always fun for me to be around the kids and to be able to be a mentor of living a religious Jewish life while still being very engaged in the secular world around me.  I am able to answer lots of questions, while being able to relate to the dilemmas they find themselves in.  We have programs starting as young as kids in 4th grade and running all the way through high school and many kids become involved early on and remain so right up until they head off to college – and then they become active with Hillel or Chabad on campus.

I am also involved with the growth of Camp Ramah in the Rockies, the site for the first specialty Ramah camp – Ramah Outdoor Adventure. While I never personally attended Ramah, I have many friends who did and I have seen the great things Ramah does for its campers, staff, and surrounding communities. This summer, we will welcome the first group of campers to Ramah Outdoor Adventure, a unique program which combines the best of outdoor adventure, environmental activism, and vibrant Jewish learning into one dynamic program.

So many young adult Jewish leaders are products of Jewish youth group activity, and what better way to build the Jewish future than by engaging our youth in fun Jewish settings? We can control environments, give them Jewish values, and teach them to lead services, leyn Torah, and be proud of their Judaism.  By providing a safe space to be a Jewish teen, they learn to embrace it as they move on.  Many of my sorority sisters, fellow Hillel leaders, and peers in egalitarian minyanim were products of USY, NFTY, NCSY, and/or BBYO (the four primary national/international high school Jewish youth programs).

I’m not really sure where this post is going*, but suffice to say I think Jewish youth involvement is a huge benefit to the future of American Jewry of all denominations.  Encourage the youth in your life to find a camp or youth group to check out, and encourage them to try another if the first isn’t their fit.

*And since I fear we may lose power any moment, I’ll just conclude here…


Jessica’s Story – I’ve Always Been Jewish

My life has always been so Jewish that I find it funny that I really am a baalat teshuva. Isn’t that reserved for those dear friends of mine who grew up never setting foot inside a synagogue?

One of my first baby pictures attests to the fact that my family always went to synagogue. My dad, with a satin kippah given to him by my grandfather perched on his head, holding me after my naming ceremony at our synagogue. Granted, the ceremony took place in a Progressive synagogue in South Africa, but still. They took me to have the ceremony.

My dad grew up Methodist, and my mom says that she found the only non-Jewish guy in the room when they met. My dad, a student at the local medical school, proposed to my mom in a letter while he was on a rotation in London, miserable from missing her. My mother’s parents, Orthodox themselves although my mother had become Reform a few years before, were only concerned that he would convert, which he did.

Throughout our time in South Africa, we were active in the Jewish community. I went to a Jewish preschool, and my mom ran the religious school. However, things in South Africa were precarious, and when I was seven years old, my parents made the decision to immigrate to a small town in Canada. The only problem was the total lack of Jewish community. We did the best we could, and managed pretty well. My mom came to my class at school to talk about the Jewish holidays. In fact, she was legendary for bringing matzah with chocolate frosting to school the first year we were there. I have no idea where she got the matzah from, nor the Hebrew books she taught me with for those three years. We made a diorama sukkah, since it was already snowing and freezing by the time Sukkot came around, and we have a videotape of me reading the four questions in preparation for Passover. By the time we left, we had a family that we would always invite to celebrate with us.

After three years in Canada, we moved to a small town in Illinois so that my dad could get his American medical license. At the time, with a Reform synagogue of 60 families, it seemed like a veritable Jewish metropolis. Once we lived there, however, I faced the reality of being one of only two Jewish kids in my school until I graduated high school.

Synagogue was my lifeline. I went to services, taught religious school, had a Bat Mitzvah and was Confirmed. Then, at the beginning of my junior year, I tried out NFTY, and it was like drinking water for the first time in years. Almost all my Jewish friends in high school were through NFTY, and I learned so much about being Jewish. My friends and I wept at the last NFTY event we would attend as participants. Needless to say, my experience with NFTY and my experience with my synagogue pushed me to want to be involved in the on campus Jewish community, but what I found there was nothing like I expected.

Coming on Monday: Why do I feel like a stranger in a strange religion?