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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.

Cyclists

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

(Holidays) Permanent link

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.

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