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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Power of All Star Abilities by Dex Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Experience on Kefiada by Abbey Finn

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

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

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

Abbey Finn Group

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

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

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

Abbey Finn Picture

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

Redefining Home for the Jewish Disabilities Community by Ben Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacqueline Bleadon Photo

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

Finding Comfort in my Jewish Identity by Josh Jury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Jury at the Podium

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