Saturday, May 30, 2020

Every day is the same. I wake up, go to school, go home, do some work, and then I have some time to myself before I go to sleep. Don’t get me wrong: I do have fun every day, and of course there are times when this schedule is more exciting, but all in all, this is the basic outline of my day. In fact, this is probably the general outline of everyone’s day, at least every teenager’s day. Although I accomplish a lot every day in school, like learning new things and doing so much, it often feels like I’ve done nothing. My usual schedule doesn’t have anything of real meaning or truly memorable built into it. The days mesh together. I am in a constant loop and in ninth grade I decided I wanted to get out.

A friend of mine helped me break out of this loop in my freshman year. He invited me to a shabbaton called “NJNCSY’s Winter Regional.” I didn’t really know what it was, but it was something new, something different, so I went for it. Over the course of the shabbaton I experienced so much happiness. I had witnessed the most enthusiastic davening with singing and dancing. Each activity was filled with so much joy. Through all of this, I realized that I had found exactly what I was looking for. This thought only reinforced itself over and over again as I continued to involve myself through the years. I had found a place where I could connect to people face to face and not online. I had found a place where I could have the most incredible Shabbat with hundreds of people. I had found a place where I was both being inspired and inspiring others. I had found a place where I could literally change lives. And it all started with one NCSY shabbaton.

I involved myself in the myriad of opportunities that were presented to me, from weekly learning programs to shabbatons to chesed missions that take place across America and beyond.

Every week across New Jersey, chapters of NCSY have their weekly programs, whether it be at Lazy Bean or an ice cream shop, where teens gather together to immerse in casual conversation and in Torah. I always look forward to Thursdays because that’s the day I get to go to Teaneck’s Latte and Learn. They even have leadership opportunities; for example, teens often get the chance to lead the learning for everyone in attendance. This is a time, outside of the usual schedule, where everyone gets to make real connections with real people, which unfortunately is something many people miss out on in their day-to-day lives.

NCSY provides leadership opportunities on all tiers. They have board positions on a town level where teens can help organize and lead events for their town. NCSY also has a New Jersey regional board with about 12 teens. Since this is a big responsibility, those accepted to the regional board undergo a year-long LEAD (Leadership Experience and Development) Fellowship. This is a program focusing on leadership training. Some of the things we do as training is a chesed mission to Buffalo, New York; assisting in the preparation of shabbatons for hundreds of people; and attending AIPAC, where we hear from some of the greatest leaders in the world. Through the incredible amount of leadership opportunities, NJNCSY trains teens on what it means to be a Jewish leader in their communities.

Then there are the shabbatons. There are some smaller shabbatons; for example, I recently attended a Nursing Home shabbaton at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh where 20 teens and advisers spent Shabbat with each other and with the residents. One of the most powerful moments for me was when I was eating lunch with a resident, and just talking about Israel had him in tears. Moments like these are the ones you just can’t forget. Then there are the bigger shabbatons where hundreds of people come together to spend a Shabbat together. This is a weekend that people count down to for months. It’s a time to have the most incredible davening full of joyful song and dance combined with times of deep reflection. It’s a time to make real connections with real people, including our advisers, whom we can talk to about anything and everything for hours on end. It’s a time to engage in activities from carnival games to participating in a beautiful kumzitz Saturday night. It’s a time to have a truly meaningful Shabbat and make memories that will last a lifetime.

We also have the famous chesed missions where NJNCSY, either on their own or by partnering with schools, takes teens to areas that were devastated by natural disasters. Some of the places we have visited have been New Orleans, North Carolina and Puerto Rico. A chesed mission I attended consisted of constructing a house for people who didn’t have a home, spending some time singing and dancing at an old-age home, and delivering a curriculum for an entire Jewish school where our group would be the only Jewish teens these kids ages 5-14 would see all year. Yes, preparing for this trip took a lot of work. Yes, being on this trip involved a lot of work. And yes, this trip was one of the best trips of my life. Having so much fun while bringing so many genuine smiles to people’s faces
really makes you see how powerful chesed is. You realize how much you have and how much you have the ability to give. On these missions you make a difference in people’s lives, while doing so makes a difference in yours.

I just shared many of the opportunities NCSY provides for teens across New Jersey, but what’s the point of it all? How do they all relate to each other? Well, all these things have a few underlying themes that draw them all together. It’s a time to break out of your usual schedule and do something meaningful with your time. It’s all about uniting with people just like you, and sometimes not just like you, and sharing stories with each other. It’s about inspiring others and being inspired, whether it be with your own peers on a shabbaton or as you try to communicate with those you are helping in Puerto Rico. Whether it be at an old-age home where you are singing songs together or at a school where the young kids are showing off the little Hebrew they know as you teach them more. It’s about seizing those few moments when your actions and words can change a life. It’s all about coming together, inspiring others, and being inspired by those just like you and by those drastically different from you. And it all started with one NCSY shabbaton.

By Mikey Finkelstein

Mikey Finkelstein is the president of NJ NCSY and is a senior at TABC.