For many teens, summer is a time to take a break from the fast pace of the school year. This could not be further from the truth for teens of Seaboard United Synagogue Youth (USY). This summer, teens from Seaboard USY are out in their communities and abroad engaging in Jewish learning and service.
For example, 16 local teens have hit the road with USY on Wheels. The program offers them the chance to travel coast to coast on a six-week adventure and make lasting friendships while building Jewish identity and strengthening their understanding of and commitment to Judaism.
“Everyone is always connected and doing things as a group,” said Sophia Hammerschmidt, a member of B’nai Israel Congregation’s USY chapter in Baltimore, Maryland. “Nobody is ever left out and everyone has a part in new activities.”
“The best part of the experience has been the sense of pride and passion for Judaism that everyone on the trip has,” said Abby Elson, Seaboard’s Membership/Kadima vice president and member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland. “Whether we are davening mincha overlooking a waterfall or at a laundromat explaining what USY/Judaism is to a South Dakotan woman who has never met a Jew before, we are able to bring our bus’s Jewish community to the most unexpected places.”
In between visits to Seattle’s Space Needle and watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, participants are celebrating Shabbat, building their own Jewish community on the road, and learning that they can find a sense of kehilla (community) no matter where their travels take them.
Thirteen Seaboard USYers are participating in USY Israel Pilgrimage, building connections to the Jewish homeland alongside their peers. Before they headed to Israel, some of the teens spent time in Poland, Prague, and Germany, learning about local Jewish history.
In Krakow, Poland, USY’s Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage group participated in the largest Shabbat dinner in the city since before World War II. With over 650 people in attendance, they brought plenty of ruach (spirit) to the community, joining in the celebration by leading an impromptu song session.
“It felt like I was there to represent my faith and our persistence throughout time,” said participant Lilly Shankman, a member of Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Virginia.
“We had so many people come up to us and tell us how meaningful it was for them to hear the voices of Jewish youth singing loud and proud,” said Shankman. “It was a truly magical moment.”
Lily Horvitz, a member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, spent spending four weeks sightseeing, exploring, and engaging in daily service projects as a part of USY Israel Pilgrimage’s L’Takayn Olam trip. Lily and her group visited Yemin Orde, where they met the youth there and learned about Israel’s immigrant population.
“These kids come from all over the world to a small village in Israel to learn at school and create a better life for themselves,” said Horvitz. “The time I spent with them really opened my eyes about how lucky I am to have such a great Jewish community back home.”
For other USYers, arriving in Israel has been a homecoming of sorts.
Sam Powers, a member of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland, shared that “going to Israel for the first time with USY has brought so much meaning to my experience.” USY Israel Pilgrimage allows the teens to immerse themselves in Israeli life as much as possible and engage with the local community.
“The best part of my USY summer experience has been meeting new people all around Israel,” said Michelle Bradley, a member of Congregation Sha’are Shalom. “No matter where you go, you’ll always be included, even at a bar mitzvah in the middle of Jerusalem.”
By Sasha Bloch
Sasha Bloch is the Regional Teen Engagement Director for Seaboard USY.