Have you ever been stuck on a bus with 54 Jews for twelve hours? I can’t even begin to think of how Moses felt.
Though the long ride to United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) 65th International Convention in Baltimore, MD, could have easily been unbearable, it was not. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From the moment we stepped onto the bus, the atmosphere was infused with ruach. The singing, laughing, and oftentimes playful yelling that surrounded us – not only on the trip down but for the entire week at convention – was a true testament to the spirit of USY. As a leader in my Jewish community of Lexington, I am often faced with difficult statistics about the fate of USY, Conservative Judaism and Judaism in general. Just the thought of spreadsheets detailing youth membership involvement gives me a sinking feeling deep in my stomach. The mere mention of the PEW Study from a few years ago makes me feel the need to defend my Judaism. But the five days at USY’s International Convention, December 27-31, changed all of that. Judaism, my Judaism, is alive and well. It is thriving. We are thriving.
The convention, filled with more than 700 Jewish high schoolers from all over North America, was a seminar in passion. It was a constant demonstration of the love my generation has for each other and for Judaism. Through esteemed speakers, engaging learning sessions and incredibly fun activities, my peers and I grew as students, friends and Jews.
During opening ceremonies, a powerful line stood out as a mantra for the convention: “All too often we are told that we are the leaders of the future. This week, we will learn to be the leaders of today.” And learn we did. In both general sessions and break-out learning tracks, I was taught and inspired by so many different teachers. The most impactful, for me, was the very last speaker, Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and a personal hero of mine. Her words rang out as the convention came to a close, urging us all to follow in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s footsteps to stand up for change and strive for equality. She encouraged and emboldened us, challenging USYers to use our power as young people rather than hide from it. It is our collective duty to be upstanders in a world awash with bystanders. At USY’s International Convention, I was given the tools, motivation and peer support to not only become an upstander and leader of today, but to inspire others to do so as well.
The slogan of the convention was “Think More. Do More. B’More.” For five life-changing days we thought more in limmudim, did more through community-based social action projects and peaceful demonstrations (including a march to Camden Yards, where we raised our voices in song, in juxtaposition to the baseball game played there in complete silence last April after riots disrupted the city), and – I’m proud to report – in the end, we became more. Though the bus ride home to Massachusetts was equally long and loud, it was different than the ride to Baltimore. That ruach, that same spirit and power, had worked its magic. We were different people, more empowered, more inspired, and just simply more than we had been before. Together, USY and I entered 2016 filled with wonder, gratitude and joy.