That was the night I found out that I would have to leave all of my friends and go away for six and a half months, spending about two months each in Africa, Southeast Asia and Israel, where, as a family, we would be doing a mix of traveling and volunteering.
While everyone around me was telling me how amazing it would be, I was positive it was going to be the worst six months of my life. I was a normal 13-year-old girl who did not want to leave all of her friends, miss her graduation and all of the other perks of finally being a big eighth-grader.
Only two months before we left, I became a bat mitzvah. Along with the typically excessive amounts of jewelry and more money then any 13-year-old should have within her reach, I got one present that really stood out from the rest. It was a letter from family friends Greg and Justine Podell, with a promise to donate $3,000 to an organization I would find on my trip that would touch my heart. I was still relentlessly opposed to going on the trip, but this gift empowered me to feel that I could make a small difference (little did I know how far $3,000 could go in some of the places that I was visiting) and provided a unique way for me to view my experience and understand my responsibilities to myself, my family and the world.
Our first stop was Tanzania, a country in East Africa, just south of Kenya, and one of the poorest countries in the world. While we were there, I spent a lot of time at an orphanage called Matumaini, which means, "hope" in Swahili. I tried to visit the orphanage every day, and I formed incredible relationships with almost all of the kids living there. I loved the kids so much; they were always so happy and hopeful, even though they have close to nothing, not even running water or clothes and shoes that fit. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the money to go to them.
I was able to return to Tanzania during my spring break of 2008 (my freshman year in high school), this time with another volunteer and without my family. Before I left for Africa, I showed my fellow students at Limudim, my religious school at Ikar, pictures of the orphans, and gave them a mini Swahili lesson (who knew that hakuna matata really does mean "no worries"?). I had each of the students write letters to the kids in the orphanage. When I got to Tanzania, in addition to reading the letters (after we translated them), I had the orphans write letters back, which I sent along with a picture of their Tanzanian "pen pal."
Returning to Tanzania convinced me that I really wanted to use Greg and Justine's gift for the benefit of Tanzania. Two of my fellow volunteers, who were also moved by their experiences in Tanzania, started nonprofit organizations. I have decided to give the money to those organizations.
The first one is called the Knock Foundation. The primary focus of the organization is to continue to support the needs of the orphans at Matumaini. The money I'm giving to that organization will create a fund that will pay the secondary-school fees for the orphans. While Tanzania offers public education, many kids cannot afford even the very small fees. My intention is to raise additional money for this fund as well as money toward the purchase of books and other school supplies
The second organization is called Team Tanzania, which is dedicated to organizing Americans, primarily young people, in improving lives in Tanzania by partnering with local community development organizations based in the Kilimanjaro region. Team Tanzania aims to motivate Americans to become involved in any number of ways: from donating money to donating time; from traveling to Africa, to speaking to friends, family and neighbors about Tanzania and its people.
This magical gift really brought everything together for me. Greg and Justine's gift, combined with this trip and preparing for my bat mitzvah, taught me to take a deeper look at the world around me and consider where
I want to take a stand in helping the world become a better place.
Of course, I realize that not everyone will be able to go on the kind of trip that I went on or receive a gift as generous as Greg and Justine's, but any gift that encourages us to consider tikkun olam in a deep and meaningful way is the best gift of all.
Maya Wergeles is sophomore at Santa Monica High School and a student at Limudim, the religious school at IKAR.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.