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Check out these videos highlighting Chicagoland's amazing Jewish teen programs!

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Enjoy these videos from our Community Celebration and see a preview of some of the amazing opportunities for Jewish teens in Chicagoland! 

Part 1 of the Community Program Highlights video

Part 2 of the Community Program Highlights video

Recognizing amazing Jewish community leaders

CTeen Deerfield's Hannah Belenkiy wins CTeen International Leader of the Year

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Hannah Belenkiy, a 10th-grade student at Lake Forest High School, has won the prestigious “CTeen International Leader of the Year Award” for her leadership skills and dedication to her community. Hannah is the teen leader at the CTeen (Chabad Teen Network) in Deerfield, IL, which aims to provide Jewish teenagers with opportunities to connect with their heritage and their peers in a fun and meaningful way.

Hannah Belenkiy
Hannah delivers her acceptance speech in front of the entire CTeen International Summit

Hannah's passion for Judaism and her desire to share it with others began at a young age. Growing up in Lake Forest, which has a small Jewish population, Hannah often felt isolated and disconnected from her heritage. Determined to connect with other Jewish teens and to share her Jewish pride, she started the Jewish Culture Club at her high school.

Hannah's leadership skills were quickly recognized by her peers and community members. Becoming the leader of her CTeen chapter, she planned events such as a Chanukah festival, where students and teachers came together to celebrate the holiday and learn about Jewish customs and traditions.

For the past two years, she has attended the CTeen International Summit, where over 3,000 teens from 30 countries across the world come together for an inspirational and educational weekend filled with Jewish pride. Each year chapter leaders are nominated to win the CTeen Choice Award. The award recognizes an extraordinary Jewish teen leader out of hundreds of candidates from around the world who have a significant impact on their community. The recipient of the prestigious title is announced at the weekend summit.

After all the votes came in, Hannah was awarded the CTeen Choice Award 2023. Winning the CTeen Choice Award is a significant achievement for Hannah, and it is a testament to her hard work, dedication, and leadership skills. The award was presented to her by Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, a leader at Chabad World Headquarters in New York.

Rabbi Chaim and Mina Schanowitz, who work with Hannah in the local CTeen chapter, describe her as a natural leader and an inspiration to others. "Hannah is a true role model," says Mrs. Schanowitz. "She has a deep love and respect for Judaism, and she is always looking for ways to share that with others."

For Hannah, the award is not just a recognition of her achievements but also an opportunity to inspire others. "I am so honored to be this year's female leader of the year! I don’t live in a large Jewish community, so I have been really lucky to find CTeen when I was in eighth grade!" said Hannah. "CTeen has helped me feel prouder of my Judaism and has allowed me to connect with more Jewish teens across the world! I am so grateful for this opportunity."

Hannah accepts the CTeen International Leader of the Year award and gives a short speech
CTeen, the Chabad Teen Network, engages hundreds of thousands of Jewish teens in young leadership programs through its seven-hundred chapters, in one-hundred countries, on six continents. To find a CTeen location in your neighborhood, visit

Practicing Tikkun Olam through the Lens of Mental Health by Daniel Tothy

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“I can’t handle it…..I don’t want to be here anymore.” -Hyper Blue Alligator

The above message was not from a video game teammate. It was a message from a teen I had never met. As I sat down in the chair that I do homework in every night, I readied myself for the shift I was about to start. I am a Teen Talk Peer Advisor, helping other teens through some of their most trying times.

The topic of mental health didn’t really hit home until my close friend was bullied so much that he began high school elsewhere. I realized I wanted to help others who were struggling, but I didn’t know where to start. During my freshman year of high school, I participated in L’Taken. I focused my efforts on mental health support within schools. From cyberbullying to depression, loneliness, and anger, I saw how frequently my friends were being affected and suffering.

After my L’Taken trip, I was hooked. I learned that I did not have to be a bystander. I could make a difference. I discovered Teen Talk, an organization that helps struggling teens connect with trained peer advisors in a free, anonymous, safe space. Interested, I applied to and was selected, participating with teens across the country in 40 hours of training in mental health crisis intervention, reflective communication, and self-care skills.

Now as an advisor, I take shifts each month. The platform lets people fully participate in a non-judgmental space. Teens like Blue Alligator reach out for help. I meet them during vulnerable times in their lives and I believe that I make a difference helping to repair one person’s world at a time.

Did you know that half of all mental health conditions start by fourteen years of age, but most cases are undetected and untreated? Teen Talk provides an excellent space for teens to get non-judgmental, anonymous help.

There are many more people to help and even more ways to collaborate with others to make a difference. The program is based in California, but the online platform needs peer advisors from all over the country.

Here is how you can train to be a Teen Advisor:

  • Teens in grades 9-11 can apply to become a volunteer and it is all remote.
  • There is a 40-hour training and commitment of to two shifts per month for one year.
  • Teens are always supervised and supported by professional clinicians while acting as a teen advisor on the app.
 Daniel Tothy

About the Author: Daniel Tothy is a senior at the University of Chicago Lab Schools. For the past two years, he has been a peer advisor for Teen Talk, an online, anonymous platform that supports teens in their moments of need. In his free time, Daniel is the vice president of his school’s Jewish Students Association, a co-founder of the Marine Biology Club, and the captain of his fencing team. He has also been a madrich for four years at Chicago Sinai Congregation. This summer, after ten years as a camper, Daniel is excited to be a counselor at Adirondack Camp in upstate New York where he will teach sailing and fencing.


The Power of All Star Abilities by Dex Schwartz

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As a 16-year-old, I’ve come to realize that there are few experiences quite as impactful and rewarding as volunteering. When I heard about the opportunity to partner with teens with disabilities to prioritize health and wellness, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. All Star Abilities at the JCC in Northbrook is incredible! The program is wonderful and has provided me with lots of opportunities to make friends with incredible people in an environment that all of us love—the gym. This experience has been invaluable for me in so many ways; not only have I had the chance to help others, but it also has taught me the importance of community service and has given me skills that will last a lifetime.

Partnering with teens with disabilities has allowed me to better understand the value of selfless acts of kindness. Serving without expecting anything in return is incredibly important, and volunteering teaches this lesson in a way no classroom ever could. It has also been eye-opening to witness the struggles that some individuals face on a daily basis due to their disability. It has made me appreciate my own ability while developing empathy towards those who may be different from myself.

Weight Room
Two teens standing in corner at a piece of workout equipment in the Bernard Weinger weight room. On their right is two rows of free weights against a large full wall mirror, to their left against a wall with a window looking out into the parking lot are rows of colorful kettlebell weights. Behind them is a large balance ball and two adjustable benches.

Throughout my time in this program, I have worked with tons of different kids and have made special connections with many of them. In particular, I have loved working with Zach. Zach is a high school senior, and even though I am just a sophomore, we have been working out together for almost two years. I love working out with Zach and helping him reach his full potential in the gym. His favorite thing to do is pullups, and everyone in the program has heard legends of his prowess (30+ in a row). Zach is also an incredible kid outside of All Star Abilities. He loves writing novels and playing basketball for his school. If not for this program, I would never have met Zach or any of the other kids that I am proud to call my friends. For that, I am forever grateful.

 To learn more about JCC's All Star Abilities or to get involved, check out their website here.

Dex Schwartz
Photo of Dex Schwartz sitting on couch and smiling.

About the Author: Dex Schwartz is a Sophomore at New Trier High School where he is a member of the Lacrosse team, DECA, and Tri-ship, a leadership organization engaged in fundraising activities that benefit the New Trier Scholarship Fund, as well as projects that serve the community. When not volunteering with All-Star Abilities or traveling to lacrosse tournaments, he works with kids at High-Five Sports Camp.

My Experience on Kefiada by Abbey Finn

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This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be a counselor for Kefiada, which is an English-immersion summer camp for children in Kiryat Gat, Israel. Kiryat Gat is part of JUF’s Partnership region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir, and Kefiada is just one of the many programs that brings people from both regions together. Through this experience, I’ve had an incredible time learning, immersing myself in Israeli culture, meeting people, and reflecting on my own Jewish identity.

I landed in Ben Gurion in late June and went on to meet my host family for the summer. A special part about Kefiada is that the American counselors get to stay with host families in Kiryat Gat. My host mom, Liah Erez, was a Kefiada camper when she was a child. Her two children have been campers there as well. Living with a host family is a unique experience, and one that I am forever grateful for. Through this experience, I got to see what it was like to live with an Israeli family, go on adventures with them, meet their extended family and friends, and truly become a part of their family. The connections I created were very special and will stay with me for a long time to come.

At Kefiada, the counselors from Chicago all had Israeli co-counselors and our own groups of campers. My campers were entering 4th grade. Each day had a different theme, and we planned activities and went on field trips to engage them in a stimulating environment and help teach them English. Kefiada campers are 4th-6th graders, and Kefiada serves as a bridge over the summer to strengthen their English.  I have a heart for working with kids, and this experience was incredible. Even though we had a language barrier, learning to communicate with them through gestures, Google translate, and my broken Hebrew made it exciting. It was even more exciting when they gained English skills and I got to cheer them on. From the time that my campers made their own costumes and had an impromptu fashion show, to the time that we had a lip synch battle and performed for the whole camp, there was never a dull moment. These kids will be in my heart for a very long time, and I miss them dearly!

Abbey Finn Group

Another special component of Kefiada were the connections we made with our Israeli co-counselors. We had designated social evenings where we all got to come together outside of camp to build our own bonds. We started with a weekend in Tel Aviv, and continued the bonds built there for the rest of the summer when we got to do a chocolate-making workshop, experience life on a Moshav, volunteer at an immigration absorption center, take a theatre class together, and so much more. By the end of a program, we really were a family. I loved hearing about their lives and gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of living in Israel.

While I don’t have blood relatives in Israel, I know that whenever I visit in the future, I will always have family in Kiryat Gat. The Kefiada experience is so unique and like nothing I have done before. I learned how to navigate Israeli public transportation, communicate with others in a language I don’t speak, understand what life is like in an Israeli home, form invaluable connections with other counselors, staff, and campers, learn about myself and my connection to Judaism and Israel, and further establish a love for our partner region. Kefiada was a fantastic experience, and I am now proud to be a part of the large Kefada family!

Learn more about being a counselor on Kefiada this summer here!

Abbey Finn Picture

About the Author: Abbey Finn is a current junior at the University of Illinois studying special education. She is from Arlington Heights and has been involved with JUF in different capacities since high school.

Redefining Home for the Jewish Disabilities Community by Ben Larson

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Save the Date: February 19th & 20th - Libenu’s Home Heart Soul Fundraiser!

The wait-list is long because the services are crucial.

The retention rate is near 100% because the care is authentic and personal.

The international acclaim and awards have been earned time and again, for good reason.

The impact radiates from each individual to the entire Klal Yisrael, and to society at large.

In just fourteen years since its inception, Libenu has permanently changed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Libenu’s programs and services provide a lifetime of care and support for people with disabilities. The participants are empowered to engage in meaningful lives as active members of the Jewish community, heads held high - loved, cared for, respected. 

We are not creating a home by simply providing a building where people live. Home is the experience of security, love, support, and acceptance. Our holistic support effort, founded upon our commitment to the dignity, belonging, and empowerment of people with disabilities and their families, is what creates that experience for our participants.

As Libenu cares for individuals with disabilities, provides support for their families, and promotes advocacy, community education, and integration, we are creating a stable social infrastructure where disabilities are not a disadvantage.

From individuals to families to communities, Libenu is building a community that is Home for people with disabilities and their families. This Home is where trueahavat Yisrael can flourish, because every member of the collective Jewish family of Chicago is accepted and valued in our community.

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Just as the heart sustains the body, Libenu’s programs pump vital energy
into the people we serve.

We launched Chicago’s first residential services designed for the Jewish community. Libenu continues to pioneer as a leader among kosher, shomer Shabbat facilities of its kind, with services available to the nearly 176,000 Jewish households in the Chicago metropolitan area. 

The demand for our services is tremendous. The data paints a staggering picture: the number of families in need of services for loved ones with disabilities exceeds 27,000. In serving this unique demographic, Libenu addresses the massive need for respite programs. 

The challenges that caregivers face can be extremely time-consuming, mentally exhausting, and emotionally draining. This leaves little remaining fuel for caregivers to tend to their families and to themselves.

Thus, a fundamental piece of Libenu’s heart is our respite program, Lev. Through the after-school program Lev Respite and overnight program Lev Lilah, Libenu offers the support that caregivers so desperately need. When parents can entrust their child to a safe, supportive, educational program, they experience a unique reprieve from the duties of caring for their child with disabilities. Whether this time is spent caring for themselves or their families, whether it’s their first calm Shabbat in years, caregivers and parents describe the break from their responsibilities as lifesaving.

Libenu’s Lev Respite and Lev Lilah programs provide vital mental health support for parents and caregivers. Every caregiver surveyed has reported that their mental and emotional health has improved in key areas as a result of Libenu’s respite programs. 

The data-driven conclusion is clear. Lev Respite participants are not the only ones who benefit; respite is a critical mental health intervention for caregivers as well. In lobbying on their behalf of these caregivers, Libenu has succeeded in earning grants that fund mental health initiatives - not just for people with disabilities, but for family caregivers as well.

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Our Heart is big enough to nourish caregivers and their families.

Libenu’s soul is unique, as are the spirits we nourish. Our commitment to the Jewish community means that inclusivity has no limit. Because of Libenu, families no longer must move out of town to access kosher, shomer Shabbat homes for their sons and daughters. No one is pressured to increase their religious practice, and no one is forced to leave their culture or their family’s tradition at the door. 

The spirit of Libenu is this: every Jew, and every person, has a home here. In so many ways, Libenu has become the home, heart, and soul of the Jewish disabilities community. 

We are lighting the way for others to follow: Jewish communities and secular communities alike all benefit from Libenu’s progress in grant access, legislative reform, and community education. As the Jewish community of Chicago advances, we build a kinder, more humane, more unified future for Am Yisrael and society at large. From individual to family to community, Libenu’s impact extends to everyone. 

Join Libenu to maximize the Home - Heart - Soul impact this February 19th and 20th!

My Journey with Keshet by Jacqueline Bleadon

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About this post: February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion month. If you are interested in sharing an experience or story you have had relating to this topic, reach out to

Since the sixth grade, I’ve been spending my summers at JCC Camp Chi. While I had a blast every summer, it was usually always the same. Same food, same lake, same camp songs. Then on a random sweaty day in July in 2018, I was introduced to Keshet. Who knew then that it would set me on a path that would come to hold so much meaning in my life now and for my future? 

On that day, my friend and I were looking for things to do during some down time and decided to play sports with campers who came to camp with Keshet support. Keshet supported campers are those with different and diverse needs and abilities who require additional staff support and program modification to ensure they have successful summer experiences. From the moment we were introduced, something clicked. That one hour was a blast and I knew I wanted to continue hanging out with these kids. 

I came home from camp and found out more about Keshet’s fantastic Sunday program called SOAR, where I started volunteering. This program helps teens and adults with disabilities learn life skills and help in the community through Jewish values. I immediately fell in love with this program and the participant I worked alongside with. Before I knew it, I graduated high school with over 200 community service hours from volunteering at SOAR. 

Five years since my first Keshet interaction, I now live in Chicago for college and commute back to the suburbs every Sunday to work for this program. Over the years, I started working on more recreation programs when I’m available. I have managed to create bonds with so many more participants than I ever thought I would. 

While I spend every Sunday helping teach these participants life skills through volunteerism and community service, they have taught me more than I could have ever imagined. I have learned patience and compassion on a whole other level than what I knew before. They have shown me how to modify everything I do and every interaction to ensure that everyone's needs are met. I've discovered that our interests are more similar than I thought. The support and guidance from the Keshet staff I now work with have opened my world to those living with all sorts of different needs. 

I would not be who I am today without all the people, both participants and staff, I’ve met through my journey with Keshet who have now become my friends. I am so grateful for that sweaty day in July 2018 and every moment that has come since then in my involvement with Keshet. 

If you are looking to do something fun and incredibly meaningful, check out all Keshet's volunteer opportunities by visiting them online at and fill out an application to get started today!

Jacqueline Bleadon Photo

About the Author: Jacqueline is a Sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago studying journalism. She spends her Sundays working in the suburbs at Keshet’s Sunday program, SOAR, along with other recreation programs. Throughout the week she occasionally writes for The DePaulia about things going on in the city and on-campus. During the summers she works as a songleader at JCC Camp Chi teaching different types of music lessons and leading Shabbat services every week. 

Finding Comfort in my Jewish Identity by Josh Jury

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About this post: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Josh Jury, spoke at his high school assembly about his Jewish identity. If you are interested in sharing more about your Jewish identity or resharing speeches you have given at school, reach out to 

Synagogue to me means safety. It’s a sacred place, a place where I can practice my own spirituality and seek my own truths. Sure, it’s a building, but it’s a building brought alive by the people who gather inside. It’s the home where I find sanctuary. A familiar place I can seek insight and refuge upon return. A place where I don’t need to hide my true self, nor the legacy of my ancestors.

As a toddler, my Mom brought me to synagogue for High Holidays and Shabbat services. The services felt warm and safe. The dim-lit room, full of people. Some late nineties and unable to stand, others young and crawling, or crying, or running into the hall. It was simple and familiar and somewhere I would await a return to, time and time again.

By third grade, my appearances became punctual. Fridays for Shabbat, an intentional break from the rest of the week. Sundays were religious classes, a mix of stories, arts and crafts, music, and exploring Jewish culture with others my age. Hebrew school met Wednesdays for a few hours in preparation for the “big day.” This routine became momentous in my life and transformative in the person it shaped me to become.

At 13, I took upon the challenge of becoming a bar mitzvah. I stood before the congregation, placing over my head a royal blue, silver string embroidered, silk Kippah that had belonged to my great-grandfather. Wrapping myself in the heavy wool tallit of blue and white with tzit-tzit that my mother wore at her bat mitzvah, and her father wore at his bar mitzvah before her. I stepped on the bima with fulfillment and determination for the moment years in the making. The crowd comprised of lifelong teachers, family, and friends from Hebrew and middle schools. I took great pride in continuing a legacy, one that felt straightforward and crucial.

I longed to learn more and continued my Jewish education, but the simplicity began to dissipate. I found myself annotating my Jewish studies books, invested in what brought such vitality to my family's generational religious investment. The once tranquil vision I had of synagogue, too, began to shift. I became more aware of my surroundings and the heavy police presence guarding the doors during services. The abundance of security cameras and the headlines of antisemitism in the news. No matter what, though, my kippah remained constant. I could put on my head covering within the bolted, steel doors of the synagogue and be brought back to center. Brought back to my heritage and my birthright.

I ventured on in my exploration with intention. Each summer was spent on Lake Lac La Belle in Wisconsin, at my beloved Jewish summer camp. This place became my home-away-from-home. I fell in love with the vast green hills, rich in heavy pine trees sheltering my skin from the sun, the indigo waters with sailboats soaring by, the charm of the cool wind as I read books in my hammock. Most of all, the community was where the true beauty lay. This place, I soon realized, was a utopia. Here I could be myself. Here I could embrace my Judaism and wear that royal blue kippah, an article I would never dare to wear openly in public, let alone high school. I felt empowered to live and pursue my own spiritual identity. 

The counselors would wake us up with “boker tov”, Hebrew for good morning. There was a freedom to the routine, differentiating the stressful school year. We could spend our days kayaking, biking, water-skiing, drawing, or simply playing board games with friends. I’d pen letters about my daily adventures and my parents would reply with how boring it was at home. Even if their lives were eventful, it was against the rules to share anything that might make your kids homesick. And, I never was. I saw firsthand the flexibility of my faith in a reformative space. I marveled at the uniqueness of having one thing in common, our Judaism. Something I’d never previously experienced with peers my age, in one place.

Last summer was different in the overall evolution of my faith and in the perspective shifts of my complex origin. I boarded a jet with twenty-five close-knit summer camp friends and embarked on a fifteen-hour flight. As I stepped off the plane in Israel, my eyes opened wide to truths I know now can never be erased, nor would I choose to erase them. Gone was the simplicity of the old days, and I was coming to terms with the modern intricacy of my identity. I was introduced to Zionism and the instilled value of a holy land that must be protected at all costs, but my group, like I, was different, too. We were the new generation of Jewish teens, and so the trip became a time for great self-reflection and great outer-skepticism. We rode camels through the Negev, swam in the Mediterranean, hiked in ancient water canals below Jerusalem. And through all the beauties, we weren’t distracted from the horrific realities of ongoing war and the political corruption the nation faced, and so we also judged.

When I walk now, through those steel, bolted doors of the synagogue, I stride with the complexity of who I am and the weight of what my Judaism means. I greet the police officers in the lobby, walk on to say Shabbat Shalom to my rabbi and check-in on my religious school friends. Then I place the royal blue, kippah over my scalp and return to center. I take my seat in the sanctuary and I am back. Safe and guarded. I don’t denounce who I am, but I affirm the person I wish to become. I think of “tikkun olam”, Hebrew for repairing the world, and I think about how I can act justly. Not with the uncomplicated viewpoint, but with awareness of plentiful obstacles, and the growing knowledge I hold.

Josh Jury at the Podium

About the Author: Josh Jury is a member of Congregation Etz Chaim and a junior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. In his free time he likes to read, bike, travel, and he enjoys photography. Josh is active in NFTY-CAR and has served on the social action committee and is currently the NFTY-CAR Israel Chair. He enjoys spending his summers at URJ OSRUI.

What I learned from witnessing my classmate wear a Nazi-esque Halloween costume by Gabi Josefson

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When I went to school on Halloween, I thought my biggest worry would be finishing up my college applications. Little did I know that the actions of one of my peers would lead to one of the most difficult times in my high school career.  

Witnessing a classmate walk around my school in an East German soldier Halloween costume, while goose-stepping on stage and giving a Nazi salute to the crowd was traumatizing.  

The question now: How do we prevent future acts of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry from occurring in my school? The answer, I believe, is through unity and education.  

As members of our school’s Jewish student group, Jewish Student Connection, we thought it important that our organization take the lead in advocating for improved Holocaust and genocide education at Jones. 

In the weeks since the incident, we—and our allies—have worked to pressure leadership to better comply with the law that made Holocaust education compulsory in public schools in Illinois, the first state in the country to mandate Holocaust education more than 30 years ago.   

In addition to genocide education, we’re also urging our teachers to consider ways they can weave Jewish education into other lesson plans. We also recommend that our peers do their own research, such as by visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. We’re optimistic that the school will implement revised Holocaust curricula in the classroom as soon as next year.  

Our school has garnered a lot of negative attention in response to this incident. The administration’s handling of the event unleashed a firestorm that threatened to dilute the gravity of the student’s behavior in wearing the costume.  

It’s frustrating that over the past year, the portrayal of Jones has failed to highlight the warmth of teachers and students in the face of challenging events, as that is a part of our culture that I am incredibly proud of.  

I am uplifted by the way our school’s teachers and students have supported the Jewish community at Jones in the aftermath of this incident, striving to counter antisemitism at our school. I’m inspired to work toward building a curriculum at Jones that focuses on educating our students on subjects of critical importance. Education, after all, is the key to uplifting perspectives and combatting antisemitism, racism, and all forms of hate in our community. 

Chicago Public Schools ultimately suspended Jones College Prep Principal Joseph Powers for his handling of the Halloween costume incident and the school is pending an investigation.

Gabi Josefson

About the Author: Gabi Josefson is a senior at Jones College Prep, where he serves as co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, co-president of his school’s Jewish Student Connection, and a member of the tennis team. Outside of school, he is involved in BBYO and JUF Voices. Gabi belongs to Anshe Emet in Chicago.

Look out for Gabi's article about this expierence in the December/ January edition of Jewish Chicago. Watch the interview about the incident on WTTW news here

Our Experience at our Kol Koleinu Retreat by Talia Polish and Rosie Smith

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I scrolled through a list Jewish groups on my computer, skimming the screen. I paused when I saw Kol Koleinu. A Jewish, feminist group? I did some research, and it seemed right up my alley: this was a place where I could meet others that shared similar values with me, and it was also an opportunity to make actual change. So, along with people from all over the US, we both applied to be involved in the change-making fellowship for teen Jewish feminists. We were put into a group of 13 girls all the way from Miami, to, of course, Chicago. Our first meeting was a 24-hour experience designed to start off the program; I didn't know what to expect. I was nervous, had never met these people, and was worried about forming connections. Was I going to feel brave enough to find my voice to discuss issues and share my honest opinions? Would my ideas be appreciated? Would my voice be heard?

Kol Koleinu photo 1

Finally, after a flurry of COVID tests, email, and logistical communication, it was time for the retreat. I was one of the first to arrive at the temple we were staying at, and I remember my heart pounding and  thoughts circulating through my head. Would the other girls be nice, or cliquey and judgemental? Would this be a space where I could make meaningful change? But within minutes of interacting with the people around me, I soon realized my worries were irrational. 

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We excitedly exchanged music tastes, anecdotes of our trips to the temple, and more. It took no time to get to know one another, and within an hour, we all felt significantly more familiar with the group. If someone was looking at how we interacted, they would’ve never guessed we had known each other for less than a day. 

The instant connection was one I’ve never felt before and I can imagine it was because we had so much in common. We were each passionate about feminism, our Jewish identities, and social change. Never has another group of people made me feel more comfortable, more stimulated and excited to talk about things from social change and Jewish identity to our favorite form of potato. Yes, a real question I felt necessary to bring up which brought about some passionate and unique answers. 

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That weekend I not only formed meaningful lifelong connections with girls I would have otherwise never known, but I also engaged in conversation that was exhilarating. I opened up about things I would have never felt comfortable talking to anyone else about before. We all shared stories connected to our identity, whether our journey to becoming a feminist, or antisemitism we had experienced that had shaped our Jewish identity. Swapping stories made me realize that I wasn't alone in any way, I wasn't alone in the hate I had experienced, or in the passion I felt to create change. In a way, it felt surreal. This was a chance to get away from our normal, stressful school life, and it was refreshing to be with a group of new people that we didn’t normally spend time with.

Now that we’re no longer able to be physically together, we’ve stayed in touch through social media and zoom calls, and we excitedly await our next in-person retreat at OSRUI. In the next few months, we’ll begin creating our social change projects that involve issues we’re passionate about. Kol Koleinu has been such a wonderful experience so far, and we are excited to have this opportunity to create change and continue fostering this community with this group of girls! We are grateful to Moving Traditions for creating this Jewish platform to sponsor education programs for teens, allowing us to delve deeper into our passion for social change.

About the Authors:

Rosie Smith

Rosie Smith (she/her) is a senior at Deerfield High School. She plays the clarinet, is a member of the warrior marching band, and participates in pit and pep band. She volunteers at Gigi's Playhouse: Down Syndrome Achievement Center where she tutors literacy. Over her summers she works as a camp counselor for kids aged 5-7. Rosie is a member of Temple Jeremiah. For fun Rosie enjoys reading, baking, listening to Taylor Swift and hanging out with friends.

Talia Polish

Talia Polish (she/her) is a sophomore at Evanston Township High School where she plays flute and is a yearbook editor. Outside of school, she is a member of the Actors Gymnasium Teen Ensemble, through which she teaches, learns, and performs circus arts. She is a member of North Shore Congregation Israel where she participates in the youth group, is a teen tutor for b’nei mitzvah students, and assistant teaches second grade religious school. Talia enjoys baking, swimming in the lake, and spending time with friends and family!

Why Our Words Matter By Olivia Graham

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As an avid watcher of The Kardashians, I always follow up on Thursdays to see the latest episode. I listen to Kanye West's music and enjoy seeing all of the obscure designs that he comes up with for his collaborations with Adidas, GAP, and his own company, YEEZY. I now feel a budding sense of shame that I (unknowingly) supported an antisemite.

On October 8, 2022 Kanye tweeted that he would go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE”. I don’t actively use Twitter and had no idea that this was even going on until one of my Jewish friends posted about it on their Snapchat story with a bunch of emojis - one with its head exploding, another with a cocked eyebrow, and one with tears streaming down its face. I too was all of these different expressions. But my first reaction was to laugh. I laughed. His tweet was absolutely absurd!

It is known that Kanye has Bipolar Disorder so my logical response was to give him the benefit of the doubt that he couldn’t really mean what he had written. I understand mental illnesses are hard to deal with and knew that  sometimes he had manic episodes. I constantly refreshed my Instagram page and looked at different news sites and even Twitter to learn more. There was nothing. Not one statement was released from him or his team stating that he didn’t really stand behind his comment, that it wasn’t actually something that he believed, or that it was connected to a manic episode. Instead, I found nothing.

Kanye West once said: “I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it”. I mean, obviously. If he had bothered to “read history” maybe he would know that these biases he holds against Jewish people have constantly been debunked. They are clearly false and dangerous things to say.

I was deeply troubled by his comments and I asked my friends what they thought about the situation. Everyone, including my non-Jewish friends, uttered words like “horrible” and “sad” and how bad they feel for the Jewish community. Once again I headed to Instagram to see what I could find. While my Jewish friends and other accounts that are affiliated with the Jewish community posted about the situation by discussing how antisemitism was absolutely inappropriate and how they stand by the Jewish community… my non-Jewish friends' accounts were dormant. Not one of those friends had voiced those same opinions or support on Instagram. I wondered where the public outrage from my friends was. If they thought the situation was appalling, why didn’t they post about it? It doesn’t take much to show solidarity by clicking “add to story” and sharing publicly how you feel. 

I started to ponder why they wouldn’t post something related to Jewish Activism… was it “controversial”? During 1st period while discussing momentous moments in American history, I couldn’t help but turn to my friend and peer at the desk next to mine and ask, “why didn’t you post about the Kanye situation, like actually?”

“Umm… well because I didn’t want to be labeled in a certain way that would make me weird to my friends”, they responded.

Oh. I didn’t think that posting about things related to the Jewish community would be considered controversial, and could end up with someone even being made fun of. We have, unfortunately, had many opportunities recently to practice allyship and I wondered what was stopping them now. Their response made me see that antisemitism has, and may continue to be, rooted in not only political ideals but also social ones too. The situation seemed to worsen and it did so quickly. My Instagram feed, TikTok For You Page, and TV News Station became flooded with content from Nazi sympathizers. There was a post with a group holding up a banner that stated that “Kanye is right about the Jews” and that people should “Honk if you know”. Kanye is right about the Jews? Right about… what?

That feeling of shame that I (unknowingly) supported an antisemite grew. I liked Kanye. I put money in his pockets. I inspired him to express his values to the world and encourage others to do the same. For the first time in my life (that I can remember) someone I supported, even looked up to, was openly antisemitic. Someone I admired was voicing a prejudice towards me and my entire community and I don’t know what to do about it. Just as problematic, many of my friends who also admired Kanye were writing this off as being connected to his Bipolar Disorder, rather than holding him publicly accountable.  But what hurt the most was that Kanye West is 45 years old and should know better than to say such false and inappropriate things, but my friend is 17 and felt that speaking out publicly against Kanye might make things weird. We can’t let future generations be scared of standing up for what's right. So, I personally am going to make it my job to make sure nobody gets made criticized for being an upstander, rather than idly watching hate continue to grow. Hate is a lot like a tree… But I suggest that instead of letting the roots dig their hate into the dirt of society, I think that expanding with our branches, reaching out, and not being afraid to blossom will lead to a more harmonious society.

I looked for the voices of people speaking out against him and his hateful words so I could find and lift up more allies. His ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, released a statement saying that what Kanye did was unacceptable and that she sides with the Jewish community. Then GAP and Adidas both dropped their partnerships with him, ending their successful relationships of many years. Twitter and Instagram silenced his accounts. Then I saw a TikTok with 500,000 likes that showed Kanye’s entire collection scattered across the musty floors of GAP, clothes everywhere with red dots indicating that everything was 75% off.  It was reassuring but was it enough? What can we do about the problem that has already taken root?

The Holocaust Musuem located in Los Angeles publicly stated that they would give Kanye a private tour of the museum so that he would “understand just how words can incite horrific violence and genocides”. Soon after, during a podcast, he rejected their offer. I was shocked. The faculty of the Holocuast Museum in LA showed immeasurable amounts of goodwill by inviting him there, and he rejected them, denying their offer. Albert Einstein said, “education is the progressive realization of our ignorance”. How can Kanye realize his ignorance if he doesn’t want to be educated? How can we expect him to admit he was wrong if he doesn’t want to be informed?

I don’t know what to think. I guess I am writing this blog to let people that hold these prejudices against Jews know that they are simply wrong. I am a 17 year old girl living in the Chicagoland area, close to where Kanye grew up. I am like any other teen. The Jewish people I know are all ordinary people, just like everyone else. I worry about those around me that aren’t speaking out. If they don’t speak out against antisemitism, is that because they may be like Kanye and believe in antisemitic lies? As Kanye famously said in his song Violent Crimes, “people never change, they just get better at hiding who they really are”. I hope that isn’t true. I hope that those who aren’t sure, or who say things they shouldn’t, are open to being educated about the danger of their words. I hope we can do more to educate people and make it clear that this type of speech is not okay.

We need more role models and influencers who are aware of the world and can acknowledge other people's differences, whether that's race, language, culture or more. I know this wasn’t a definitive answer to the whole situation. My opinions and thoughts are constantly changing and racing as I read new information and see different people’s reactions. I know one thing for certain, that allowing influencers and celebrities to get away with sharing hate speech, should not be a precedent for the future. It’s our job to hold people accountable for their actions, not just in private conversation, but in public words and actions.

About the Author: Olivia Graham is a current junior at Vernon Hills High School. She attends Congregation Or Shalom has been teaching there for a number of years. For the last three years, Olivia has helped students learn Hebrew at Congregation Or Shalom through different movements. She is the current president of Jew Crew, the youth group at her synagogue and she is very excited to see what this year holds for that as well. Outside of youth group and synagogue, Olivia enjoys doing gymnastics, playing trumpet, and baking. 

Introducing Molly Fidlow, the New NFTY Midwest Teen Mentor

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Hi everyone! My name is Molly Fidlow and I am super excited to be serving as the new NFTY Midwest Teen Mentor. As part of my role, I will be overseeing both NFTY-CAR and NFTY-NO, working with members in each region to help foster community and build Jewish events after being online for so long. 

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I have been involved in the Jewish world my whole life. Growing up, I was a camper at OSRUI, a Madricha at my temple, and a participant and leader in NFTY. Both camp and NFTY helped shape my Jewish identity in more ways than I could ever imagine. They allowed me to connect with my Judaism, ask questions, and meet other Jewish teens my age. To this day, I am still friends with some of the people I met doing these programs!

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This past May, I graduated from Loyola Chicago with a B.A. in Political Science. I am very excited to see where my new post-grad life takes me, and am particularly looking forward to using my degree in our NFTY social justice programs. During my time at Loyola, I worked on both Loyola and Metro Chicago Hillel leadership teams, with my last year being spent as the President of Loyola Hillel. In addition, I worked for 3 years as the Israel Education Intern under the Jewish United Fund. I was thrilled to be able to find such a strong Jewish community in college, and hope I can foster a similar feeling for our NFTY high schoolers. 

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Feel free to reach out with any questions about NFTY, or if you just want to chat!

The Collab: The New NFTY by Josh Jury

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NFTY has been the Reform Jewish Youth Movement for the last 83 years, but the pandemic presented challenges to its future. Now NFTY is back, in its entirety, and led by ambitious leaders looking to pick back up where we left off. 

‘The Collab' was a monumental event for the future of the Jewish youth movement. It had been several years since an in-person NFTY North American event, and in my time involved in NFTY, this made it my first. 

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When I first found out this event was happening, I was beyond excited. And the fact that my home camp, OSRUI, was hosting was just an added bonus. The group comprised of people from across the U.S., from the east coast to the west coast, the midwest, north and south, all regions across the board were present and made an effort to join in on the fun. This event was oriented toward enhancing the leadership skills of Jewish high schoolers in the Reform Movement. And this event was important for setting NFTY back on track. 

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We arrived on Shabbat and after some ice breakers and many rounds of Jewish geography (some unplanned!) we were instantly connected despite our diversely different backgrounds. The first dinner was a little quiet. We were all happy to be together, but not fully introduced as a group, just excited for what was ahead. 

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By the next day, things were really kicking off with a plethora of activities planned for us. The day was guided toward our own personal leadership skills and growth. We attended a storytelling training program where we learned how to better public speak and narrate interesting stories, cultivating more captivating ways of communication. We learned about a 1:1 conversation, which is a very intentional and formal conversation that aims away from the “what” and toward the “why”. Shortly after 1:1’s we had a voting program, which was organized and led by friends of mine that I met this summer on NFTY in Israel! I was thrilled to be asked to help lead in this program about restrictions and language barriers in voting. This is under-represented topic that I personally became more educated through in preparing to present to our rotating groups. We moved on to other programming, some more regional specific, to further develop connections between our local groups, and even a mock trial to gear in on more politically active aspects of what justice looks like. 

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All NFTY events are enriching; whether through social action, fun programming, social justice initiatives, or just through exploring new friendships in an accepting and inclusive Jewish community. ‘The Collab’ was action packed and I couldn’t possibly summarize everything. I came back from this weekend really inspired and with a smile on my face. There was definitely an energy with this group that I’ll never forget. And I met many amazing new friends just in those few days. For everyone who attended, although the weekend is over, it’s clear that this is just the beginning of something new and exciting ahead for all of us. 

About the Author: Josh Jury is a member of temple Etz Chaim and a junior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. In his free time he likes to read, bike, travel, and he enjoys photography. Josh is active in NFTY-CAR and has served on the social action committee and is currently the NFTY-CAR Israel Chair. He enjoys spending his summers at URJ OSRUI. 

Meet Kori Miner, the new Program Director of Teen Social Change Initiatives at JUF

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Hello, everyone, my name is Kori Miner and I'm thrilled to be serving as the new Program Director of Teen Social Change Initiatives on the Youth Initiatives team at JUF! 

Kori Miner

A little about me and why I'm here: I grew up in Skokie, and was lucky enough to be surrounded by Judaism almost everywhere I went. I feel so lucky that I was gifted such an incredible community, a set of meaningful values to live by and a sense of myself as a part of a larger lineage and history.  As I grew older and entered the workforce, I found that the Jewish values I picked up as a young person were the ones that guided me the most: service, generosity, courage and perseverance helped me thrive as a ninth grade English teacher and new teacher coach. I cannot wait to meet more the teens involved in Chicagoland Jewish programming as the year progresses! Getting to know the young people I have the privilege of working with has been my favorite part of my career so far, and I am certain that my time at JUF will be no different.  

It wasn't until my birthright trip that I realized how extraordinary my Jewish adolescence was, and just how fortunate I was to grow up where and how I did. While traveling across Israel with a bunch of Jewish strangers, I met Jews from Minnesota who grew up as the only Jew in their community. As a teen, spending time with other Jewish teens was not only one of my favorite things to do, but also allowed me to develop most of my most important friendships and see myself reflected in others. Everyone should have the opportunity to feel accepted and valued in the way that myself and others who grew up in my community did, and that's why I'm so excited to be creating spaces for teens to grow, learn and invest in one another. 

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Again, I am thrilled to be here, and cannot wait to continue making connections with you all as I continue this work.  

Want to connect with Kori? You can email her at 

From Honoree to Nominator

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Dear Springboard blog,

Hi! My name is Naomi Altman and I am a freshman at Emory University. I was pretty involved in Springboard when I was in high school. In 2020, I was chosen as one of Chicagoland’s 18 Under 18 Honorees. I gained so much from the honor and mentorship that I received so I decided to nominate Josie. While I knew Josie for a long time since we both attended Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, I only really got to know her this year. I was her Junior Counselor for Diller Teen Fellows and right off the bat noticed that she had a clear passion for Tikkun Olam and natural leadership abilities. As her JC in Diller, I saw her volunteer to take on responsibilities and act as a role model to the other fellows.

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I knew that Josie had the drive and passion necessary to receive the honor and follow through with a great impact project which is why I decided to nominate her. Being able to nominate someone was an amazing experience especially after being an honoree myself. Being an 18 Under 18 honoree impacted my life in so many ways so having the opportunity to impact someone else meant so much to me. Throughout the year, I was able to see Josie grow and become even more confident as a leader. Her impact project, where she led donation drives to the Lakeview pantry and the Greater Chicago food depository inspired me a lot and I know that she impacted many people. I am so proud of her and can't wait to see what else she does.

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About the Author:

Naomi Altman is a current freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia where she plans on studying economics. She was very involved with Springboard and participated in Diller Teen Fellows as a fellow and a Junior Counselor, Research Training Internship (RTI), Springboard Peer Ambassadors, and received the 18 Under 18 award. She also received a Springboard Innovation Grant for her organization:  Messages From the Past: Never Forget

Why I Was Inspired to Nominate Jacob for 18 Under 18 By Laura Siegel Perpinyal

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About the prompt: 18 Under 18 is always a special process and a great opportunity for people in the community to highlight teens who uniquely live out their values as leaders and changemakers in the community. Are you thinking about nominating an incredible teen for this year's 18 Under 18? If so, check out Laura's blog post to read why she nominated Jacob and his profound impact on his community. 

Nominate an exceptional 9-12th grader by Friday, September 30th at 5:00 PM HERE. Nominators can be teens, Jewish professionals or community members. Nominations made by teens themselves or by family members will NOT be accepted.

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I first got to know Jacob well as a student in our Temple Chai school program. It was clear that he loved learning, but in addition, had a special ability to support students helping them to learn to read Hebrew and to prepare for becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For the past four years, Jacob has been a madrich, a student volunteer in our school, working in the 5th grade class as well as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah tutor, working one on one with dozens of students to prepare for this meaningful Jewish lifecycle experience. Jacob’s commitment to our community didn’t stop there. Two years ago, Jacob joined the Social Action Committee of our congregation. He is the only student on our adult committee, and yet, he attends meetings regularly, contributes ideas and has been instrumental in planning 3 Mitzvah Days.  Jacob has been a leader within our community, organizing and leading programming in front of large audiences and for various ages of participants. He even pivoted and lead a virtual Mitzvah Day this past January when our community went virtual due to the rising COVID cases. 

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I am incredibly proud of Jacob!  He was a natural fit for Springboard’s 18 under 18, which created such a special opportunity to broaden his positive impact. Jacob chose to combine his passions through his project collecting devices like computers and laptops to be donated to those in need.  Not only is he a serious and dedicated student, but he is a compassionate leader that looks to support others with deep care and sensitivity. Jacob exemplifies leadership and commitment to social action, by working towards making a better tomorrow for his Jewish community and the world! 

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About the Author: Laura Siegel Perpinyal has been the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Chai since 2011. Under her leadership, the school was accredited by the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) in 2018. Laura has been active in the national leadership of the ARJE serving as a Board Member since 2021 and has served as Development Co-chair and Advocacy Team Leader. She also served as President of the Chicago Area Reform Jewish Educators (CHARJE) from 2017-2021. 

Laura also loves spending time with Temple Chai students at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) where she serves as Faculty over the summers. Laura attended Indiana University where she graduated with Honors with degrees in Jewish Studies and Political Science. In 2009 Laura graduated from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion with Joint Masters Degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Non-Profit Management. Laura and her husband in Northbrook, IL with their two children.

Kayla’s Craft Closet Spreads the Power of Art around Chicagoland

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Hi Springboard blog,

Last year I chosen as one of Chicagoland’s 18 Under 18 Honorees. I received this honor for my involvement and work in the Jewish community and specifically for my organization, Kayla’s Craft Closet (KCC). 

Kaylas Craft Closet

Since I was little, I have loved art and I am passionate about accessibility to art for all children. Unfortunately, so many youth that come from underserved backgrounds do not get to experience the power of art. For me, art is a respite. It is my safe space. And it is upsetting that there are children my age who are unable to benefit from art and creativity like I have been able to. Whether it be beading a bracelet or painting with watercolors on a canvas, art has always been the vehicle in which I express myself and I would not be the person that I am today without it.

I started Kayla’s Craft Closet (KCC) as a way to spread the power of art around Chicagoland and to make arts and crafts accessible to all young people, regardless of their socioeconomic status. I do this by donating bins of high-quality art supplies to organizations that serve underserved youth and creating a space for creativity. 

For my impact project as an 18 Under 18 honoree, I expanded Kayla’s Craft Closet to additional locations throughout Chicago. Throughout my project, I have been able to witness firsthand the effect that art has had on others. When I have collected and donated art supplies in the past, it has been so rewarding to see kids get lost in their creativity; their faces light up and they can’t erase their beaming grins. Every time that I receive pictures of the youths’ artwork and their wide smiles, the flame of passion for art within me turns brighter. Therefore, I made it my mission to donate as many KCCs as possible to organizations and youth centers throughout the greater Chicagoland community. 

Although I create all of the Craft Closets on my own, I built one with the Jewish community at last year’s 18 Under 18 celebration. As someone who has such a close relationship to her community, I wanted them to be a part of one of my donations. After the celebration, I had a bin filled with donated art supplies that I was then able to donate to an impactful organization. It meant to much to me that I was able to involve my community in my project.

A year later, I have been able to deliver over 15 Craft Closets to youth centers across Chicagoland and I hope that the number continues to grow.


About the Author

Kayla, an Ida Crown Jewish Academy senior, is committed to Chesed and making a difference in her community. At school, Kayla is the co-captain of her school’s student first responder team, Hugo’s Heroes; she is on the leadership board for ICJA’s Israel Advocacy club; and she is the co-president of her school’s charity club, Interact-HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere). She is also a group leader for Student to Student, a peer education program, and is on the student government executive board. Kayla is an editor and writer for her school’s newspaper and the editor-in-chief of her school’s literary magazine. Outside of school, Kayla is a StandWithUs Leventhal intern as well as a member of the Voices Alumni Board, the Chicago Yachad Board president, and she is on the Illinois Holocaust Museum Teen Leadership Board. Kayla is the founder of Kayla’s Craft Closet (KCC), a nonprofit with the goal of making arts and crafts accessible to all youth despite their socioeconomic status.  As a part of KCC, Kayla delivers craft closets to youth groups with the purpose of promoting creativity and emotional expression.

Lia Chazan's ShinShinim Experience

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The ShinShinim program is the “year of service program” that offers Israeli high school graduates an opportunity to delay mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces and serve Diaspora communities for up to 10 months. The program allows communities to meet young Israeli ambassadors who perform meaningful service prior to entering the army. 

Lia Chazan, a student at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School and active member of BBYO, shares her experience of hosting ShinShinim in her home. Click the video below to learn more about her experience.

The iCenter’s new Shinshinim, Israeli gap year volunteers, are arriving this September and are looking for some awesome host families for the fall and spring semesters. Click  here for more info about hosting and  here for some reflections from two former Shinshinim. Contact  Elana with any questions.

Living the Dream: My NFTY in Israel Experience by Josh Jury

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Hi Springboard blog!

Now that I’m home after a spectacular four-weeks on the NFTY in Israel, Chalutzim Baaretz trip, I’m writing to share my experience! 

I’ve known since I was really young that I wanted to travel to Israel and so although the trip was anticipated, my expectations of the holy land were vastly different from what I was pleasantly greeted with. Stepping off the plane we were asked if we believed Israel were an ancient or modern place… I can confidently say now it’s both! 

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Before embarking on my trip I had expected that Israel would be desert-like. I had expected that there would be a challenging language barrier. I even thought that technology-wise, it would lack in vast coverage of the most up-to-date things. These expectations were not correct. Israel is lush and green with a plentiful amount of trees, beautiful mountains like the blue ridge parkway, and palm trees spread across the coasts. There is definitely desert in the south, but northern Israel has rivers, streams, waterfalls, cooler weather, and stunning views. As for language barriers, in the cities we stayed in like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Poriya… a language barrier was practically non-existent. I found that most Israelis speak really good English and learn it in their high school curriculum. It wasn’t a struggle to get around and understand what locals were saying when walking through malls, markets, Ben Yehuda Street, etc,. Lastly, I was impressed by how modern Israel is. Technology is a strategic and important part of the countries infrastructure and that was clear the moment we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. Virtual desks were waiting for us to scan our passport and get our ID for time there. Electric cars were parked along the streets outside. And so was the booming and towering city that Tel Aviv is. Tel Aviv reminds me a lot of Miami, a bright coastal city with tall buildings and beautiful beaches. 

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I’ve been asked a lot lately about what my highlight of the trip was, but there were so many highlights I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to one. 

One of the staples of the trip is the 4-day choose your own adventure. And of the options we were given, I chose one called Yam L’Yam, which is Hebrew for Sea to Sea. The trip is the 47 mile hike from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. I love camping and I love hiking, but in all honestly, when I first arrived to that trip, at our first campsite I was a bit shaken by just how rustic this type of camping was. There weren’t tents, but rather mats and sleeping bags to lay on and of course showers were a thing of the past. Although not the most glamorous of the trips, all we needed was each other to make it worthwhile and push through for the awesome hikes ahead. This trip, unlike the rest, was united with all of the other NFTY in Israel groups. We were split into our hiking groups and quickly made strong friendships with people from all over the states. Days were full. We’d wake up with the sun around 5am and hike up until 4pm at the next campsite. Our guide, Shay, would explain the historical paths of the crusades that we were hiking on and point out all the beautiful parts of the nature around us. The trails were rocky and up through the geode filled mountains. Ruins and ancient castles could be seen hovering above at the peaks of mountains. Some trails were water hikes through rivers and creeks. Full of wildlife and flowering (some thorny) bushes. There were definitely tough moments were we had to push ourselves, but we were all there in a joint effort and lifted each other up (physically and metaphorically). Nights were spent under the stars in skies absent of light pollution.

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Over the course of the trip we traveled all throughout the country in our tour bus led by Shailee and counselors Asaf, Omer, and Ellen. They kept us hyped up and prepared for all in the days ahead and I am so grateful and lucky for to have had them as counselors.

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Constantly on the move, we visited an archeological site from the time of the Maccabees and found ancient vase pieces. We went to important spiritual and religious land marks like the western wall. All of the trip was eventful, even the more relaxed moments like sipping fresh fruit smoothies on the beach at the Mediterranean to floating in the Dead Sea. But there was also  hiking in underground water canals below the City of David to going on banana boats in the Kineret and going rafting down a stream later the same week. There was never a dull moment. 

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Israel as a place was incredible and my time there was some of the best of my life. Besides the place though, the people and friends with me are definitely what made this experience so impactful and full of memories. Thinking about the experiences I had in that month is so surreal that it almost feels like a fever dream. I can’t wait to be back.

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About the Author: Josh Jury is a member of temple Etz Chaim and a junior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. In his free time he likes to read, bike, travel, and he enjoys photography. Josh is active in NFTY CAR and has served on the social action committee. He enjoys spending his summers at URJ OSRUI. 

Finding Judaism On My Own Terms by David Tapper

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About the prompt: JUF runs an internship for college age students to work at JUF or other Jewish agenecies and organizations in the Chicago area over the summer. This is called the Lewis Summer Intern Program (LSIP). Springboard reached out to the interns and provided a platform for them to share about  their different Jewish journeys. David Tapper, an intern on the Marketing and Communication department at JUF, shares in his blog below how he is Jewish beyond high school.  

Before starting college, being Jewish had never been a self-directed endeavor. My dad used to drive me to Hebrew school and my mom picked me up. My entire family would go to High Holiday services together. My life as a young Jewish person was organized by family, by synagogue, and by structured event participation. Being Jewish was about acting Jewishly.

Although I do retrospectively appreciate these aspects of my adolescent Jewish life, I can’t help but remember them as annoyances for my younger self. Admittedly, no one really wants to wake up early every Sunday for Hebrew school–unless of course Purim was approaching and the prospect of hamantaschen seemed promising. Going to synagogue, sitting through prayers, or fasting for Yom Kippur always felt like activities that I did because I was Jewish and because that’s what Jews do.

Last fall, I began my first year of college. Aside from the entirely optional Hillel and Chabad, there was no real sense of Jewish obligation. My family was back in Chicago–as were the directing forces of my religious life–and I felt the freedom to forget Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Even Hanukkah nearly slipped my mind. First semester flew by, and my Jewish identity narrowly hung on by the thread that was flying home for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. By December, I found myself with an even blurrier picture of my major, religious devotion, and identity. This isn’t to say that avoiding synagogue left me bereft of a sense of self, but rather that the freedom to forget which comes along with moving away from home removed the structure from my life, leaving a space to fill with my own structure.

In the last weeks of winter break, I decided to enroll in “Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.” Kabbalah changed my life. Kabbalah radically challenged, reinterpreted, and revitalized an aspect of my identity I had allowed to lie dormant for my entire life. Scholar Daniel Matt refers to Kabbalah’s foundational work, the Zohar, as a collection of “New-Ancient words,” reflecting on the central idea that the Zohar, in all its revolutionary inventiveness, seeks to draw upon primordial knowledge, upon truths which have always existed hidden in the words of Torah. Kabbalah also follows the Neoplatonic trend of viewing the human as a microcosm of the universe. As such, Kabbalah posits that these primordial truths exist within humans.

From Kabbalah, I have gained an intense interest in the history of Jewish thought, particularly with regard to the ancient wisdom contained within humans. I have spent this summer reading 20th century Jewish existentialist thought with my rabbi and thinking about how Martin Buber’s I and Thou and Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity take central themes of the Zohar and run with them. The conclusions are different, but the ideas are the same. Buber and Levinas build on Kabbalah, inverting its focus on the individual and suggesting that mysticism has a place in our everyday lives and relationships with others. 

I have discovered that Judaism has many paths of engagement and that for me, being Jewish is about learning to think Jewishly. The space in my life left unstructured certainly is not full–I doubt it will be anytime soon. But I have begun to plant seeds in hope that a verdant garden might grow in place of the barren structure that once was. Maybe someday my garden will be lush, and I can build up the old structure again, a trellis on which the climbing plants and fruit trees I have sowed may continue to grow.

David Tapper

About the Author: David Tapper is a sophomore at Brown University majoring in Religious Studies and Philosophy. David is interested in the history of Jewish thought as well as the nexus between philosophy and literature. At Brown, David is involved with the Religious Studies Department Undergraduate Group, the A Priori Philosophy Magazine, and the Old-Time String Band. After completing his undergraduate studies, David is excited to pursue further academic studies by attending graduate school for a masters and PhD in Religious Studies. This summer, David was a Lewis Summer Intern in the JUF Marketing and Communications department and participated in an independent study with his rabbi.