Blog with Springboard

The Springboard blog highlights the experiences of Jewish teens and Jewish teen professionals participating in community programs across Chicagoland and beyond. Dive into blogs about different Jewish teen events, leadership programs, trip opportunities, and more! Join us in celebrating the unique perspectives and contributions of Jewish teens and professionals in the Jewish community. To post a blog, please email danielleburstyn@juf.org.


Springboard Blog

Springboard Blog

What Makes BBYO Special to Me?

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The B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO): a pluralistic teen movement; a home. A non-profit organization that helps Jewish teens build their identity; somewhere memories are made, laughter is shared, and meaningful connections are built. 

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a new prospect, trying to find the words to describe how incredible our movement is. She was asking questions such as “How do I become a member?” “What does membership entail?” “Which chapter would I be in?” Having all the answers, I easily led her through everything she was wondering. But, one last question was stated, making me unsure of how to properly answer it. “What makes BBYO so special?” To be truthful, I had no idea how to reply. How can I easily summarize the impact this organization has on me? Where would I even start? “This might take a while,” I replied, knowing that I wanted to answer her with all of my heart.

“Before I joined BBYO, there was nothing that stuck with me. I had sports and extracurriculars, but I did not have a true connection with anything. This organization was always mentioned by family members and friends, but I had no clue what it actually was. I gave one event a shot and by doing so, I immediately fell in love. After my first event, I began to participate in unique programming. I tried new things I had never thought about doing before. I learned more about what it means to take leadership in my community and speak up for myself and for the Jewish community when necessary. I felt more connected with my Jewish identity than ever before. Most of all, I made lifelong relationships, meeting some of my best friends.”

Here, I am truly able to express myself for who I am. I love being a part of this community, along with attending events that are hosted by my chapter (and the region) have always been the highlight of my week. 

By coming to GMR’s Whirlyball kickoff, I assure you that you will have a great time, and will want to become more involved. A regional event like this one is the perfect opportunity to meet new people, and get a feel for what this organization really is. I promise that if you come, you will have so much fun, and feel the same love for this community that I do.

Hallie Horwich

About the author: Hallie Horwich is a Freshman at New Trier High School and was Bat Mitzvahed at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston. Hallie is an active member in BBYO, and has served as her chapter Sh’licha (Jewish Enrichment VP), and Mekasheret (Eighth Grade Recruitment). She enjoys spending her summers playing field hockey and traveling.



Coming Together to Make a Difference: Join Our Giving Circle for Israel

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In tough times, working together can have a big impact. If you're a teen or an adult looking to help people in Israel affected by the ongoing conflict, you're in the right place! On November 5, you can be part of a group of caring folks who join forces to make a positive change.

What's a Giving Circle?

A giving circle is a group of people who pool their money and sometimes their time and skills to help a cause they care about. It's like a team effort where we all chip in to do something awesome. In our case, we're helping out folks in Israel dealing with the ongoing conflict.

The Power of Teamwork

The cool thing about a giving circle is that when we all work together, we make a bigger impact. Here's why it's awesome:

Super Impact: By combining our resources, we can make bigger donations that can support larger projects and help more people.

Learn and Connect: Giving circles let us learn about the issues we're tackling and talk to others who care about the same things. This is especially great for teens looking to understand social issues better.

Community Vibes: Being part of a giving circle is like joining a friendly club with a shared mission. It's a chance to meet new people and build relationships with those who want to make the world better.

Supporting Israel in Tough Times

The ongoing conflict in Israel has been really tough on many folks. As part of our giving circle, we're stepping in to support organizations that are helping those affected by the conflict. This could mean giving humanitarian aid, supporting mental health programs, helping with reconstruction, and more.

Why You Should Join

Here's why you should hop on board:

Make a Real Difference: You can directly help people in Israel who are going through hard times.

Learn and Grow: Joining our circle means you'll learn more about the situation in Israel, the organizations making a difference, and how we can change things for the better.

Be Part of a Caring Crew: Together, we can offer hope and support to those in need. By joining us, you're becoming part of a kind and caring community that wants to make the world a better place.

This giving circle reminds us that we can do amazing things when we team up for a good cause. So, on November 5, let's join forces and be part of the giving circle that's all about helping Israelis affected by the conflict. Together, we can bring a glimmer of hope to those facing hard times in Israel. Don't miss this chance to be a part of something truly meaningful. Join us and help create a brighter future for those in need.

You can register for the giving circle here.

Giving Circle



Meet BBYO’s New Associate Regional Director: Shira Rosen!

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I am so thrilled to be a part of BBYO as an Associate Regional Director and Genesis Fellow to GMR. I was born and raised in Los Angeles in a big, close family.  Judaism was always a huge part of my life. From attending Jewish day school to going to a Jewish sleep away camp in the summers, I have grown to appreciate deeply and cherish my connection. My time at Camp Ramah in California started as an infant in their Gan while my parents worked as camp doctors, to my own time as a camper, counselor and Rosh Edah (Division Head).  I loved working with staff and campers alike to plan programs, create leadership opportunities, and just have fun! In 2022, I graduated from Indiana University with a BA in psychology and minors in marketing and photography. After graduating, I spent the year in Israel teaching English to students in Rishon LeZion as a part of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program.

Whatever opportunity comes my way, I strive to educate myself and make an impact on the community around me. In my recent Israel program, I attended the Masa Wilf Leadership Summit, where I learned about adaptive leadership. During this time I was also selected to be on a panel to speak to Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, about my own Jewish leadership journey. I can lead. I can educate. But perhaps my greatest goal has been making sure that those around me can each learn enough to move forward by gaining new knowledge and leadership skills. Although I can take matters into my own hands, it is important to teach people new skills and ensure others one day will replace me. I hope that those around me also take their new confidence and experiences right back to their communities, homes, and schools. I hope that I can make others' voices heard and develop, since if I had the great fortune of family, community, education and experiences, so can I try to create connections with new communities. I am excited to be able to translate my passions and hobbies to Chicago and BBYO, and I know I will be inspired by those around me. 

When I am not working, you can often find me going on walks, trying something new, traveling, and cooking.  I have a passion for photography and finding the beauty in things around me.  I am excited to have the opportunity to explore a new city and relearn how to navigate the winter weather!  Help me explore my new Chicago home!

Shira Rosen

Knit Knot Knoop: Changing the World One Stich at a Time

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I’ll never forget the first time I learned about a knit and purl stitch. I was visiting my grandma in her apartment in Chicago and I was 8 years old. That first stitch inspired a passion for knitting that would forever connect me to my grandma, or in Russian, my babushka. My grandma immigrated to the United States from Russia 23 years ago and one of my favorite things to do is to knit alongside her while she tells me stories that her grandma once told her. 

Last year on Halloween I broke my leg and knitting was one of the only activities I could do while I recovered. It brought me great joy and comfort and I found myself wanting to give that feeling back to other people. In addition to teaching me about knitting and making Russian chicken meatballs, my grandma also taught me about doing good in the world and always being kind to people. I knew I wanted to use knitting to give back to those in need. I have always had an interest in public health and one of the greatest public health problems of our time is the homelessness crisis. While I was healing from my broken leg, I came up with the idea for Knit Knot Knoop. 

I created Knit Knot Knoop to bridge my love of knitting with my interest in fighting against homelessness in Chicago. I knitted several scarves and partnered with EZRA, an organization that works to prevent homelessness and relieve hunger, to distribute the scarves to the homeless in EZRA’s care to keep them warm during the harsh Chicago winters. I visited several nursing homes in the Chicago area and taught the residents how to knit. I loved connecting with the residents because they reminded me of my own grandma. 

This year I am working to expand Knit Knot Knoop and bring it into Hebrew schools because I want to teach people my own age not only about knitting, but more importantly, about the homelessness crisis facing the United States. As I teach people about knitting, I will also present about homelessness to inspire them to give back to their communities. I am looking forward to expanding the project and will be including information on my website about homelessness and educational knitting videos so that students far and wide can contribute.

Download a video here.

Here is how you can get involved:

  • Kids and teens in the Chicago area can learn how to knit through online videos and I will pick up the scarves to be donated to EZRA 

Kate Elterman

About the Author: Kate Elterman is a rising 8th grader at the Latin School in Chicago, Illinois. Kate studies Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian. She is also a competitive fencer and is ranked 30th nationally. She hopes to become a dermatologist focusing on public health. Kate founded Knit Knot Knoop to educate young people about the homeless crisis through knitting.

How the Hartman Teen Fellowship Expanded my Worldview

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My name is Daniel Weisskopf, and I am a junior at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. During the 2022-2023 school year I had the distinct privilege of learning as a Hartman Teen Fellow. This pluralistic program ran for the first time this past year as a way for North American Jewish teens from every background, including Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Unaffiliated Jews, to come together and analyze modern facets of society - from both the perspective of Jewish texts and ourselves. The program enabled teens who attend Jewish private schools and those without formal Jewish education to learn and grow together. Throughout the two shabbatonim, three trimesters of electives, and monthly beit midrashim (learning sessions), brilliant scholars taught us about identity, Jewish Peoplehood, faith and practice, ethics, and power and vulnerability. We also bonded through fun and engaging activities such as laser tag and escape rooms. Furthermore, we built relationships, forming an inclusive pluralistic Jewish community. Our relationships have continued beyond the Fellowship and have expanded our social networks.

The Hartman Teen Fellowship has taught me to expand my view of the world, be more open minded, listen to every member of society, and engage in thoughtful and respectful discourse. The skills and topics fellows learn throughout the year have a wide-reaching scope and last far beyond the duration of the program. When I arrived at the opening shabbaton, I was surprised to find a lack of participation from Chicagoland Jewish teens. I feel our community can benefit greatly from more Chicagoland Jewish teens learning from and experiencing the Hartman Teen Fellowship. It is my hope that more Jewish teens, from Chicagoland and beyond, will join me in the program in order to learn more about themselves, the diversity of North American Jewry, and the relevance of Jewish thought in the modern day. As we grow our Hartman Fellowship community, I feel confident in the future of North American Judaism.

Weisskopf



Meet Danielle: The New Teen Engagement Specialist for Springboard!

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I am so happy to be joining the Springboard team. After working for Congregation Beth Am this past year (2022-2023) as a Social Media Specialist, I found a passion for building and supporting Jewish communities, while also being creative through content creation and social media. These two areas of interest mesh perfectly in this role, and I look forward to utilizing my interests to connect with Jewish teens in the Chicagoland area. 

I grew up in West Rogers Park and attended Akiba Schecter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park. During my childhood, I spent a lot of time in Apachi JCC Rogers Park, Apachi JCC Skokie, and Camp Nageela Midwest. I enjoyed the atmosphere and activities at camp. During high school, I was involved with NCSY and would go to several events and shabbatons throughout the years. I was also a camp counselor and drama specialist for Apachi Skokie’s Performing Arts Camp (PAC) for several years. I met many amazing people and made lifelong friends along the way. We made long-lasting memories and immersed ourselves in Jewish songs, foods, and stories.

Superheroes

Apachi JCC Skokie Superhero Day

NCSY Group

NCSY Shabbaton

Being a part of a Jewish community has profoundly impacted who I am and has led to my joining the JUF as their Teen Engagement Specialist. I want to share the joy of being a part of the Jewish community, no matter what that may look like for each individual. There is no wrong way to participate or show up. 

When I am not at the JUF, I can often be found trying a new restaurant, going to concerts, or relaxing with my cats, Gus and Zeus.

Gus and Zeus

Gus and Zeus

The Importance of Getting Involved

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Let’s take a stroll down memory lane. About six years ago, I was sitting in a crowded auditorium at Vernon Hills High School, carefully listening to a passionate speech from the student body president at first year student orientation. I remember the advice he gave, and it all seemed like the standard clichés: don’t procrastinate, study for exams, practice academic honesty, make meaningful friendships, challenge yourself with your course work, cherish these four years etc. However, there was one piece of advice that was said more times than I can even express: “Get involved.” Now, that was not just something the student body president was saying. I heard it from everyone: teachers, parents, grandparents, upperclassmen, and my friends. Even though this advice seemed pretty obvious, it was easier said than done. “Getting involved” in high school activities is more nuanced than just joining any club you can, for I would say it is most interesting to join activities that cater to all your different interests. 

When I came to high school, I knew that I wanted to be on the dance team. I had danced all throughout my childhood performing and participating in countless recitals, competitions, summer intensives, you name it. However, while I was quite comfortable dancing, I knew that it was imperative for me to try something new. During my sophomore year, I did a project on gender inequality in Peru, and it was this that inspired me to be one of the founders of VHHS’s first gender equality club. Nevertheless, this club and project was the very beginning, for I wanted to learn about how gender equality and Judaism intersect. During my senior year, I wanted to try something new, and with our world being flipped upside down by the pandemic, I wanted to find something where I can make an impact in a virtual sense. Therefore, I applied to be part of Moving Traditions’ Kol Koleinu Feminist Teen Fellowship, and it was there where I met people from all around the country passionate about various gender equality issues. I got to lead teachings about climate change and create a social change project about reproductive health. It was experiences like this one that made my less-than-normal high school experience special. High school gave me the opportunity to explore all my passions, and it allowed me to meet different groups of people and to practice different skills. It was this involvement that helped me at George Washington University when I started to join activities and create meaningful relationships with my friends and professors. It also inspired me to major in international affairs and take classes related to international human rights and gender equality. 

Imagine you are about to graduate from high school. When you take your stroll down memory lane, you want to remember all the relationships, passions, and skills you learned in high school. So simply put, try something new because you never know what will be most interesting. 

Sammie Reinstein Photo

Sammie Reinstein is a rising third year at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. where she studies history and international affairs. She is excited to make her second appearance on the Springboard Blog, but this time as a Lewis Summer Intern at JUF in the Integrated Fundraising Department. In high school, she was involved in the Kol Koleinu Feminist Teen Fellowship through Moving Traditions and USY. In her free time, you can find Sammie dancing, listening to Taylor Swift, or re-reading Little Women. 


How Diller Teens Fellows Helped me Explore my Jewish Identity

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Hi everyone! My name is Ariana Freimuth and I am a sophomore at Vanderbilt University. I am majoring in Human and Organizational Development with minors in Business and Data Science. During my time in high school, I was a Yearbook Editor, VP/co-founder of Women in Business, Peer Group Leader, and I played varsity Field Hockey and Lacrosse. Outside of school, I worked as a Madricha at my synagogue’s Sunday school and at Apachi Day Camp during the summers. I also participated in Voices and, last but not least, Diller Teen Fellows.  

After spending nine years at Solomon Schechter Day School, I struggled with how I would maintain my connection to Judaism upon entering a public high school. I was able to continue my involvement in the Jewish community through working at Apachi and the Sunday school, but Diller was what allowed me to explore my Jewish identity. It gave me the space to reflect on what type of role I wanted Judaism to have in my life with a more adult-like perspective for the first time. The experiential activities combined with meeting other teens from all over the world enabled me to independently shape my Jewish identity. Forming relationships with the other teens in my cohort (shoutout cohort 8!) aided this as well. Despite our three-week trip to Israel being canceled due to Covid, I gained clarity in what being Jewish meant to me and how I wanted to serve the community going forward. At Vanderbilt this past year, I kept that inspiration going through Hillel and TAMID, which is a consulting club for Israeli businesses. Because of my experiences in Diller, I am motivated to continue my involvement with the Jewish community at Vandy, and I am excited to continue this beyond as well. 

Ariana Freimuth


A Taste of Israel: My 8th Grade Journey Through Culture and Connection

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As an 8th grader, I was faced with a big choice - a three-day trip to Washington D.C. or a week-long adventure to Israel through a program once named “Ta’am Yisrael” or “Taste of Israel”, and now known as “IsraelNow”. The decision required some thought, but the chance to explore my Jewish heritage was more appealing than visiting D.C.'s historical sights. 


The anticipation built up as the plane landed in Israel. I had no clue what this place was like; I only knew of Israel through stories and my religious studies. As soon as I stepped onto Israeli soil, I was on cloud nine. I felt such a powerful sense of connection in the brief moments of stepping out of the plane. Ta’am Yisrael offered a full immersion into Jewish culture, exceeding all my expectations in a short period of time. This trip gave me the chance to learn about Jewish traditions, Israel's history, and interact with other Jewish teens. All of these things helped in shaping my identity at such a pivotal point in my life. 


Every day was an adventure. Sleep came at a premium, but who needs sleep as an 8th grader? The adrenaline and excitement fueled me. Oh… and the shakshuka! We trekked up Mount Sinai, explored the bustling markets of Jerusalem, had plenty of falafel and Israeli cuisine, and left a prayer I wrote at the Western Wall, a piece of me that still remains there.  


What made the experience even more meaningful was meeting and forming connections with Jewish teens from different backgrounds across the Chicagoland area. Their stories, viewpoints, and the deep conversations we had made me realize that I was part of a community connected by our shared history and values.  


My week in Israel wasn't just a trip; it was a crucial point in my life where I found a sense of independence and curiosity that has stuck with me. This trip allowed me to experience Israel as a vibrant, living part of my Jewish identity. I returned home not just with memories, but with a deeper understanding of my Jewish identity. 


The true value of my Ta’am Yisrael experience wasn't just from what I learned or saw, but from the perspective it gave me. It allowed me to see the diversity of the Jewish community, connect with my roots, and understand that my Jewish identity will forever be a key part of who I am. It affirmed that I am a small piece of a much larger puzzle that makes up Jewish culture. 


Now, I should mention one part of the trip that you must keep in mind - our visit to the Dead Sea. Now, nobody warned me about sunburns, so I’m going to warn you! Imagine the surprise (and everlasting sting) when I realized that the sea's salty water doesn't quite agree with sunburns. It's a memory that still brings a smile to my face, and a gentle reminder to pack extra sunblock next time. This experience, along with the countless others, continues to shape my life story as I continue my journey as a young Jewish adult. 

Stone Gomberg

About the Author: Stone Gomberg is a junior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is studying Advertising in the College of Media and has a passion for research and consumer insight. He is heavily involved with Jewish life on his campus and was a member of the Lewis Summer Internship Program at the JUF.  In his free time, he enjoys watching sports, traveling, and indulging in a variety of foods. 




Top 5 Reasons to be a Peer Ambassador

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Hi! My name is Jessica, and I get the privilege to work with Springboard Peer Ambassadors throughout the school year. Throughout the school year, Peer Ambassadors increase awareness about Jewish teen activities, facilitate Jewish connections for your peers, and even create their own programs. They can earn a total of $300 over the course of the Ambassadorship. It’s amazing to see what the Peer Ambassadors are able to accomplish in an entire year. Check out the top 5 reasons why you should apply to be a Peer Ambassador for the 2023-2024 school year!


  1. Connect with Jewish teens in your community! 

Last year, 15 Peer Ambassadors were able to connect with over 200 Jewish teens! From hosting events to attending community events to having meaningful conversations, teens across Chicagoland. Meet other Peer Ambassadors and develop incredible friendships. 

 Connect with Jewish teens in your community


  1.  Get Creative! 

As a Peer Ambassador, you get the opportunity to host your own event shabbat or holiday celebration so you can connect to Jewish community your way.   

 Get creative


  1. Become an Expert in Jewish Teen Community Programs! 

From youth groups to leadership programs to travel opportunities, you’ll be able to discover so many ways for you and your friends to get involved. 

 Become an expert


  1. Grow as a Leader! 

No matter what your vision is for the future, Peer Ambassadors is a great way to strengthen your leadership skills. At monthly workshops, you and other Peer Ambassadors will learn a lot that can be brought back to a community you are connected to. 

 Grow as a leader


  1. Have Fun! 

When you are trying new things with friends, you can’t help but have a good time.


Have fun


Check out our website to learn more about the Peer Ambassador program and apply TODAY! Questions about Springboard Peer Ambassadors? Contact JessicaBank@juf.org.  


Meet the Springboard Lewis Summer Intern, Ariana!!

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Happy summer! I’m very excited to spend my first full summer at home in a while with JUF’s Youth Initiatives Team. My past summers have been filled with Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Diller Teen Fellows, and being a counselor at Kefiada in Kiryat Gat. If you have any fun Chicago summer tips, please let me know!  

After spending my high school years with more Jewish organizations than I can count, I am excited to be contributing to the planning side. I am very grateful for my upbringing in the Chicago Jewish community and how it has shaped who I am today. The values which guide my life including respect, curiosity, and inclusion all have roots in my Jewish upbringing. I have learned to appreciate the people I surround myself with and how important it is to build a supportive community.

Ariana Photo 1

Ariana and Marc Luban at a CHUSY convention in 2018

I am currently a student at Muhlenberg College, studying Psychology and Business. My hobbies include playing Jewish Geography, making Challah, and overanalyzing my tomato plant.  

As a new resident of the East Coast, at least while I’m at college, I have learned that everyone is obsessed with New York City. While they love their big city and the hubbub, it has made me appreciate the Chicago community and pluralism I am surrounded by so much more. This Shavuot I had the opportunity to learn at Anshe Emet Synagogue with a beautiful mixture of people including one of my high school teachers, my camp director, and some childhood friends. I love the welcoming and openness of the Jewish community in Chicago. The bridge of religiosity and respect from one denomination towards another instills my faith in Judaism. 

Ariana Photo 2

Ariana and Jacob Kline hosting two Israelis as part of Diller in 2019

While I build my community in college, I rely on my friends and experiences from Chicago. Bringing friends into the Jewish world whether at Hillel or elsewhere is always a highlight. The love that emanates from community is beautiful and motivates my involvement within Judaism.  

I am excited to learn more about my Jewish identity and connect with others who have dedicated their work to continuing and improving the Jewish community.

Ariana Photo 3  

Ariana with friends at the 18 under 18 celebration in 2019


Meet the new CHUSY Engagement Director, Parker Weber!

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I’m incredibly excited to be joining the USY team as the new Chicago USY (CHUSY) Engagement Director.

Although I was not part of USY, I attended JCC Camp Apachi and Camp Chi, and worked at both summer camps for a combined 9 summers. These experiences are what led me to teaching. Being a camp counselor, assistant unit head, and finally a unit head, were the best jobs on earth. I wanted to find a way to have that kind of joy and feel that I was making that important of a difference every day, I found that through teaching.

Parker Weber

I loved working in the classroom, but I missed those informal interactions with the kids, where we were just trying to have as much fun as possible. I found that when I became a part-time youth advisor for USY at Beth Judea.

These informal educational experiences were more in line with what I was looking for. So, when the CHUSY Director position opened up, I leaped at the opportunity. I’m excited to be in this new role, collaborating with other youth organizations and professionals to create as many opportunities for our Chicago teens as possible to have an amazing Jewish experience.

In my downtime you can find me enjoying a good book, snacking on popcorn while watching a movie, and annoying my neighbors by practicing piano.

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  https://www.cteen.com/locations

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.

Libenu Photo 1

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.

Libenu photo 2

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 JessicaBank@juf.org.

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 www.keshet.org 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 JessicaBank@juf.org. 

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.