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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?

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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. 

Molly Fidlow Photo

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. 

Kori Miner and Friend

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! 

Laura Perpinyal

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! 

Josh Jury 1

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.

My Journey to BBYO Chapter Leadership Training Conference (CLTC) by Joshua Horwich

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When I stepped off the plane in Newark on Tuesday, June 7, I didn't know what to expect. Of the more than seventy people that I would be spending the next twelve days with, I knew one person. Walking to baggage claim 1, I was starting to wonder if this summer was going to be as fun as everyone had said it would be. As soon as I checked in and got my name tag, three people from Atlanta walked up to me and introduced themselves. When we got on the bus, we sat down and started playing cards. Being with them made the three-hour bus ride feel like thirty minutes. We got off the bus and ran through the rain to the gym.

When we woke up in the morning, everyone was excited to get started with the day. We started off by working on our leadership skills to bring back to our chapters. In the afternoon, we played basketball and went swimming. But, the part that brought the CLTC community together wasn't what we did during the programming, but instead what went on during free time. It was during the walks to meals and while we were hanging out before bed, that I really saw the bond of the BBYO community. While at camp, I met Jewish teens from Florida to California, who I will be able to reunite with when I go to college.

Throughout the time that I was at CLTC, we bonded through Maccabia, song sessions, sports, Jewish enrichment, and so much more. We were able to experience camp through a BBYO lens, and we were able to learn how to make our chapters and regions the best that they can be. When I left, I felt like a completely different person. I had stepped out of my comfort zone, and I couldn't be happier. I made lifelong friends at CLTC, and am excited to make many more during the time that I have left in BBYO.

Being able to spend twelve days learning about Jewish communities in other cities has given me the ability to give me an idea of how I want my chapter to look, and what I want to leave behind for the next group of leaders. I still talk to the people from CLTC every day and I am planning on visiting them this year. The connection to the Jewish teen community that BBYO has given me has played a major part in my life, and being able to go on a summer experience has shown me how BBYO connects people from around the world solely because they are Jewish teens.

Joshua Horwich

About the Author: Joshua is a Member of BJBE in Deerfield and is a rising Junior at Highland Park High School. He is the S'gan of his BBYO chapter, Shabak AZA, and co-president of his synagogue's youth group. He is also a Diller Teen Fellow and plays lacrosse for Highland Park High School. He also is a song leader at his synagogue.

Interested in getting involved with BBYO? Learn more about the Great Midwest Region (GMR), which spans accross Illinois, here!

Meet Sami, one of the Youth Initiatives' Lewis Summer Interns!

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Hi everyone! My name is Sami Simon, and I am so excited to be joining the Youth Initiatives team as a Lewis Summer Intern.

To introduce myself, I am an incoming junior at the University of Iowa. I grew up in Buffalo Grove, IL and I have lived there my whole life. From a young age, I began my Jewish journey by attending Hebrew school for many years where I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah. After my Bat Mitzvah, I went on the 8th grade Chicagoland teen trip to Israel, otherwise known as IsraelNow. My short time in Israel quickly impacted my Jewish Identity. In high school, I began participating in youth groups like BBYO and NCSY which helped me create lifelong friendships and connections. My senior year I served as the president of my NCSY chapter, a very rewarding leadership role, after spending 2 more summers in Israel. On top of that, I took advantage of the opportunities that I found through Springboard, and I went on 3 different school break trips to New York City, Tampa, and Los Angeles. These once in a lifetime experiences have helped me feel extremely connected to my Jewish roots and values.

After high school, I knew that I wanted to stay connected to the Jewish community throughout college. Before beginning college, I was extremely nervous about finding my place because of the relatively small Jewish population in Iowa, which was something that I was not used too. Sure enough, I found the Hillel on campus which basically serves as my second home. I have loved connecting with the amazing staff, and other students, who have made my experience and truly gave me a sense of belonging. I have continued to increase my participation with Hillel by going to programs, weekly Shabbat meals, serving on the student board, holding a position as an ambassador for Iowa Hillel, and much more.

Growing up, I wish I knew that there is a place in Judaism for everyone. There is not just one way to “be Jewish” and that is the beauty of it. As a Lewis Summer Intern, I am hoping to share this message and help others find their path on their Jewish journey. I want to continue to build my connection to Judaism as well as the Jewish community who makes all this possible.

Sami Simon

About the Author: Sami Simon is a junior at the University of Iowa where she majors in Education Studies and Human Relations. 

Meet the Springboard Lewis Summer Intern, Staci!

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Hello everyone! My name is Staci Babich, and I am so excited to be a Lewis Summer Intern and to be joining the Springboard team! 

A little bit about me is I am from Glenview and am highly active in Hillel at Bradley University.  At Bradley, I am a rising senior, and this will be my third-year interning.  Last year, I was an engagement intern, and it gave me the opportunity to meet and engage with a wide variety of students at Bradley. I loved being able to do this and learn a little bit about everyone. My journey throughout college at times was a little rocky, but Hillel was always there for me and helped me to become the person I am today. There my connection with Judaism grew, and I also met my best friend. 

Fridays at Hillel were one of my favorite places to celebrate Shabbat last year. Not only is there great food, but during services there was a time when I had a smile on my face. I found a sense of community and trust. There, I was able to freely express myself to the fullest. I did not have to hide who I was and was not worried about being judged. The connections I have made with the people here are ones that will last a lifetime and I cannot be more grateful. The future for me may be unknown, but the possibilities and memories to be made are endless! 

Through the Lewis Summer Internship I hope to grow my identity and connect with some of my Jewish roots!  One of my goals this summer is to explore what Judaism means to me and how being Jewish has given me numerous opportunities for me to discover who I am.

Staci Babich

About the Author: Staci Babich is a senior at Bradley University studying psychology with minors in ethics and advertisement/public relations. I intend on graduating this upcoming December and can’t wait to start the next chapter of my life, whatever that may be!  

Introducing Yael Handelman, a Springboard Peer Ambassador

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About the prompt: We asked each Peer Ambassador to share with us a pivotal moment in their Jewish journey, what being a Peer Ambassador means to them personally, and what value speaks to them.

Check out Yael's blog post below as she shares how her Jewish community inspired her to be a Peer Ambassador this year.

I’ve grown up my whole life in the nurturing Jewish community. Whether that be Shabbat at Anshe Emet, middle school at Chicago Jewish Day School, or summer camp at Habonim Dror Camp Tavor, the Jewish community has brought so much joy and meaning to my life. I remember my first day of camp Tavor meeting the kids and playing ice breakers such as bang, not knowing that these friendships would stick with me forever.

I wanted to be a Peer Ambassador so I could connect teens to the Jewish community and allow it to be a positive influence in their lives the way it has been in mine. I have met many of my closest friends through Jewish outlets such as camp, shul, USY, and Jewish day school. I look forward to helping teens build their own connections to other teens and the Jewish community. As a Springboard Peer Ambassador, I will have the opportunity to plan creative programming for my peers and bring the Jewish traditions I love to a larger audience. I’m so excited for this year and the chance to be a Springboard Peer Ambassador and I hope to help build enthusiasm within my peers for Jewish values and traditions. 

Yael Handelman

About the Author: Yael is a graduating senior at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School and an active member at Anshe Emet Synagogue. She is going to the University of Minnesota in the fall. She loves spending her time at gymnastics and also serves as her school's varsity volleyball team captain. Yael is excited to take on responsibility as a Springboard Peer Ambassador because of the amazing and creative opportunities it gives teens to connect to the Jewish community.

Shavuot Learning from Avital Strauss

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The festival of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and encourages people to be inspired by the wisdom Jewish tradition has to offer. One fun tradition is to learn with friends! We are excited to share our own Shavuot learning experience featuring interpretations of Torah written by students at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School (RZJHS).

Check out Avital Strauss's D'var Torah to learn how a cross country biking trip parallels the holiday of Sukkot through its story and values.


This summer, I biked 2,679 miles across America, and in doing so, I embodied the core values of Sukkot. Many of the quintessential aspects of my trip were remarkably similar to those of the story on which Sukkot is based, in which the Israelites wandered through the desert before reaching Eretz Yisrael. The Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years; I biked across America in 40 days. The Israelites traveled as 12 tribes; we traveled as 12 kids. The Israelites’ ultimate goal was to reach the promised land of Eretz Yisrael; our ultimate goal was to reach the promised land of San Diego. The Israelites wandered in the desert, or bamidbar; we wandered through the Walmart midbar in Paris, Texas. Our magical sustenance was not manna but rather gatorade and protein bars. Instead of shaking the lulav and etrog in our temporary homes, we shook our bikes before we left camp every morning to check that our gear was properly strapped onto our bikes so it wouldn’t fall off while we were riding. Our Moses looked a bit different from the hero in the Bible; even though she was only 5 feet tall, 22 years old, and lacked a distinctive beard, she was as tenacious as our Biblical leader.

On Sukkot, we recall the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt and before finding refuge in the Land of Israel. The Sukkah is emblematic of the temporary homes which provided shelter for the Israelites during their time traveling in the desert. And so, Sukkot is a holiday deeply connected to nature. It forces us to attend to the majesty of the world that surrounds us. In Biblical times, the Israelites' lives were defined by their direct experience with the natural world. In the age of social media, Sukkot encourages us to remove ourselves from our technology-centered lives and reconnect with the world and people around us. On my trip this summer, we did not have access to our phones for six weeks. This rule was a true blessing to me and my friends; it forced us to be present and not hide behind our phones. After riding more than 100 miles in one day, it would have been so easy for us to sit and scroll through Instagram. Instead, we channelled our exhaustion into productivity and made meaning out of our time together. After our rides, we would play cards, shoot hoops, swim in lakes, and go on walks, doing whatever we could to deepen our bonds. When we stopped on the side of the road, we didn’t pull out our phones to text friends back home; instead, we appreciated the glory of nature that surrounded us and explored the wilderness. The absence of technology forced us to be one with each other and one with nature, and that idea of stepping back from our technology-filled lives to appreciate the people and beauty that surround us is at the core of Sukkot.  

The natural world is unpredictable, and while technology helps us transcend the helplessness we feel when exposed to natural elements, Sukkot forces us to confront human vulnerabilities. In today’s world, we are so used to having control over our environment. When it gets hot, we can easily turn on our air conditioning to reach equilibrium once again. That is not so easy to do in a Sukkah. Likewise, I didn’t always have that option this summer; I couldn’t turn on the air conditioning when it was 125 degrees outside, and I was sleeping in the chapel of a tiny church in Brawley, California. There was nothing to protect me when I was biking in 105 degree weather on a relentless, 20 mile uphill stretch. On Sukkot we pray for rain, but on this trip we prayed for it not to rain, as I had no windows to close to hide in the shelter of my home when it was thunderstorming, and I was biking 25 miles per hour to out-race the threatening storm. Within the sukkah, we are similarly exposed to natural elements, living in a temporary shelter with a missing wall and a roof that can be easily permeated by rain, cold, or heat. 

On Sukkot, we emulate the Israelites' time bamidbar. The term “bamidbar” is often directly translated to “in the desert,” but I like to think of it as the wilderness beyond the borders of society. By this definition, we can experience the freedom of spirit and connection to nature that the Israelites knew not only in the desert. The scenery of our escape is irrelevant; what matters is the act of leaving the comforts of society and our modern lives and entering an entirely new world with rules determined by the laws or whims of nature. I think that the act of shaking the lulav, hadas, arava, and etrog in the Sukkah supports my understanding of “bamidbar” as beyond the borders of society. These species are there to remind us of the beauty of Israel’s harvest and are symbolic of the Earth’s primary habitats: the desert, mountains, lowland, and river, all of which can be found in Eretz Yisrael. The diversity in landscape that we celebrate by shaking the lulav on Sukkot can certainly be found in America, as well, as I learned this summer. Each state has a unique landscape. While Texas is known for its dusty plains, in Georgia you will find rolling hills and farmland, and New Mexico is filled with seemingly endless mountains. 

The exposure to nature bamidbar can elicit much joy, especially when coupled with a willingness to be vulnerable. Sukkot, a holiday during which we are expected to be joyful, closely follows Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, during which we atone for our sins. Known as zeman simchateinu, the season of joy, during Sukkot, we are asked to embrace the delight of the holiday, which can be difficult to do after the emotional exposure we experienced on Yom Kippur. But, our joy can be understood to be a natural follow-up to Yom Kippur. After atoning for our sins, we look ahead and recognize that we will be able to continue experiencing the wonders of the world and that we have the privilege of being our authentic selves. Because we are able to be vulnerable, Sukkot becomes a holiday filled with happiness. Our relationship with God, ourselves, and our community is enriched because we looked inward on Yom Kippur. Likewise, the vulnerability experienced by celebrating Sukkot or embarking on a cross-country bike trip can bring forth true, all-encompassing joy. This summer, I found true bliss when I was exposed to the natural world. My heart swelled when I saw a vivid, pink sunset, a distant view of a rocky mountain, or a scarlet, fluted cactus. I was happy because I felt I was my authentic self.

Avital Strauss and friends

We also derive joy on Sukkot from the practice of Ushpizin, a ritual in which we welcome guests into our Sukkah. The medieval sage, Moses Maimonides, otherwise known as the Rambam, once remarked, “when one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and other unfortunate paupers. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eats and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul—this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly . . .” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:18). By sharing our joy, we can together practice the unity and emphasis on community that is essential to celebrating Sukkot. Though I am used to welcoming others into my home, this summer, I was the beneficiary of this custom, albeit not from other Jewish families, but from the strangers affiliated with the churches and community centers that hosted our group of cross-country bikers. Local families would often cook dinner for us and ensure that we were well-taken care of as we rested after a long day of riding. One morning in Springerville, Arizona, I was reminded of the importance of being kind to and hosting strangers. Generally on this trip, we woke up around 3am, and on this particular morning in Springerville, we awoke in a local church. The wife of the church pastor had spent the night at the church, and she, too, woke up at 3am - just so she could put out some food for us to eat for breakfast. This simple act of hospitality has stayed with me for months, and in the spirit of Sukkot, I was reminded that our community is strongest when we open our homes and hearts to Ushpizin.

In the Sukkot story, the Talmud recalls the emergence of an unlikely hero upon the Israelites' arrival at the edge of the Red Sea. The tribes are all debating who will enter the sea first, each too scared to be the first and potentially drown in the sea. Nachshon ben Aminadav jumps into the sea, unsure of whether or not he will survive, but sure that he must take the risk or else return to Egypt. The sea parts and Nachshon makes way for the rest of the Israelites, and as we all know, they make it safely to the other side. Nachshon takes a scrutinized leap of faith; knowing that he can no longer be limited by the oppression in Egypt and he must step up as a leader for his people, he considers his options and chooses to jump towards a new future for himself and embrace the opportunities that await him on the other side of the Red Sea. Nachshon teaches us that you must trust what is beyond you, be open to new opportunities and change, and be willing to make that jump. This summer, I took a leap of faith. I considered my circumstances and chose to take a risk. I chose to trust myself and be secure that I would be okay. I would be okay because I had faith and worked hard, and I would make my dreams come true. 

As we experience Sukkot this week, we have the privilege of welcoming others into our Sukkah but also of being exposed to the elements. I encourage each and every one of us to take that leap and embrace this opportunity. Try to appreciate the nature that surrounds you and derive joy from it. Have faith that you will be okay. Who knows -- it may just result in you biking across the country! 

Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach.

Avital Strauss

About the Author: Avital Strauss is a recent graduate of Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. She loves to engage with her school community through various activities such as being President of the Rochelle Zell Feminism Club, Mental Health and Wellness Club, and 8-time international champion Model United Nations team. She has a deep passion for advocating for social justice and being involved in local politics, which she has done through working on various political campaigns. Avital is deeply connected to her Jewish and Israel identity, having attended Jewish school her entire life and being one of JUF’s 18 Under 18 and the Midwest Regional Honoree of StandWithUs’ Leventhal High School Internship. An avid cyclist, skier, and hiker, she enjoys spending time in the outdoors. Avital will be taking a gap year in Bolivia, Peru, South Africa, and Israel before heading to Brown University next fall. 

Shavuot Learning from Annie Winick

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The festival of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and encourages people to be inspired by the wisdom Jewish tradition has to offer. One fun tradition is to learn with friends! We are excited to share our own Shavuot learning experience featuring interpretations of Torah written by students at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School (RZJHS).

Check out Annie Winick's D'var Torah to learn how RZJHS teaches the values of nivra b'tzelem elohim and chesed, which builds community and helps students come together to support one another during difficult times. 

When one of us hurts, we all hurt, and when one is celebrating, we celebrate together.

When I was in eighth grade, I started to experience an interconnected and caring community through my sisters, who were students at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. We learned that my sister's best friend's mom had become sick. Her cancer, which had been in remission, came back, and we all came together to help the family. Abby's mom, Andrea, planted a garden every spring, but when her illness came back, she struggled to keep the garden. Good friends took on the responsibility of planting and then tending the garden for her during this difficult time.

Knowing how important the garden was to her, our community donated plants to the garden. We, as a community, would help the family travel to and from hospitals, come together in prayer, invite them to our houses for Shabbat and high holidays, and organize meal trains, so they had home-cooked meals that Andrea was no longer able to prepare. We, as a community, prioritized doing all we could to make the rest of her life enjoyable and relaxing.

After she tragically passed away, RZ provided a bus to the funeral, and everyone came together to grieve. The garden remains in their backyard and blooms again every spring.

Before I started at RZ, I observed the tight-knit community as more of an outsider, but I didn't think much of it and had yet to experience it fully. In my eighth-grade year and my years as a 9th and 10th grader, I assumed that everyone has communities that surround and support them in times of need.

Now I realize that our supportive and nurturing community extends from our Jewish roots.

Through our discussions in my junior Talmud class, I have begun to recognize what a unique environment RZ creates for everyone, based on the foundation the Talmud provides. The capacity to grow, love, learn and help. Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim and Chesed are key foundations for a Jewish life. Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim translates to "we are all made in the image of God" and therefore have infinite value. This concept presents itself in Genesis, from the story of creation, which shows how important it is in Jewish life. Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim describes how we should treat everyone with respect since we are all connected to God. The value of this concept is shown in the Mishna as it describes when one life is destroyed, all lineage of that person will be erased. Sanhedrin 4:5 goes so far as to say that, "anyone who sustains one soul, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world" (Sanhedrin 4:5). Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim also explains how we are all interconnected, as we all contain a likeness of God within us. As Abby's mom became ill, she was suffering; but it impacted the whole family. When our community supported her, we supported the whole family. When we recognize the value of someone and then see them struggling, our immediate response should be to help and restore their sense of value through acts of chesed. Rabbi Shai Held articulates, "We are asked to become like God by being creatures of chesed, of love manifested as kindness. Even more profoundly, we are asked to transform our suffering into love — to love the stranger, because, after all, we 'know the feelings of the stranger.'" (Rabbi Shai Held, "Daring to Dream"). Once we understand that every human being is infinitely valuable, it compels us to treat others with chesed. We are compassionate and filled with the capacity to love and help. When we recognize each other's struggles, we feel obligated to support one another.

I have come to understand why the environment and community at our school is so special and isn't an accident, as we recognize that we are all made in the image of God and thus understand the worth of every person. Through these insights, Jewish people grow from a young age, embedded with this reason. The core of our key Jewish concepts – the idea that every person is worthy and valued — remains the structure that our community is built around.

Our beliefs drive our actions. Understanding this foundation continues to impact my perspective of our school community. At RZ, students constantly discuss our school's connection with everyone's family and how we all come together in times of need. My realization in my Talmud class is that our community's care should not be expected and is not normal but continues because of our shared values of Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim and chesed. 

Going through these tough times with a community connects us. The community's help did not stop after providing a meal for the family or attending shiva; rather, this support created lasting connections. These relationships now look like having coffee with members of the family, calling them on the phone, or having them at our high holiday meals. Our Jewish values compel us to reach out and support one another during hard times, which creates this meaningful and irreplaceable bond.

Recently, we have seen this connection on a global scale. Through the acts of violence perpetrated upon the people of Ukraine, JUF works to help and deliver aid halfway across the world. Our community cares for strangers as well, as emergency efforts are being deployed to assist the Ukrainian community. Even though we don't know the Ukrainians halfway across the world, we can see them suffering and thus feel the duty to assist them, no matter how far removed they may seem.

Realizing how our shared values affect our community shifted my perspective this year. I now see these core values everywhere at our school. Friends here do not hesitate to ask for support because we all know that we are all infinitely valuable. I help my peers understand physics concepts because I recognize that they have infinite value. My teachers devote their entire lunch period to help ensure that I thrive in class because they recognize mine, and every student's, infinite value. Although many of us may think this type of community is "normal" because it is what we are used to, it is important to remember how special our environment at RZ is and the foundation for it. I will continue to use the ideas of Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim and Chesed in my Jewish life to help guide me in treating other people and creating a strong community.

Annie Winick

About the Author: Annie Winick is a rising senior at RZJHS in Deerfield. She belongs to North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. Annie is active in her Jewish community. For two years, she served as a member of RZJHS’s social justice club, DEAP, which stands for Direct Service, Education, Advocacy, and Philanthropy. She will serve as president next year. Annie loves food, exemplified by her presidency of Holla for Challah, a school club that facilitates challah baking for the whole school before Shabbat on Fridays. She also loves to play tennis and is looking forward to being RZ girl’s tennis team captain next year. She likes to hang out with friends and walk her dogs, Scout, and Jem, in her free time.

Jewish Teen Alliance of Chicago Highlights

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The Jewish Teen Alliance of Chicago (JTAC) is a teen board made up of members of various Chicago based Jewish youth groups and youth organizations. JTAC members are responsible for representing their youth groups on the board, gathering information about happenings in the Chicagoland Jewish youth community and sharing updates with their organizations.

 During JTAC's final meeting, they created a video highlighting their favorite memory from being a part of their organization this year. If you are interested in learning more about JTAC and how you can get involved email

We hope you enjoy learning all about these teen's amazing experiences!