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Jewish Journal

I found unity, friendship and tzedakah in Anaheim

by Matt Sackman

January 31, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Imagine walking into a room full of 1,000 Jewish teenagers from all over North America who are singing in unity and celebration of their Jewish heritage. This was the sight at the 2007 United Synagogue Youth (USY) International Convention. From Dec. 23-27, the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim became the center for teens from all over North American attending an amazing weeklong convention packed with social action projects, Jewish studies and most importantly, a focus on tzedakah. What made this one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life wasn't just the location, or even the number of people, but rather the friendships I made and the social action projects that we as a group helped bring to the world.

USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, is made up of 17 regions that span the United States and Canada. Every year at the convention, the 17 regions enter the grand ballroom of the hotel in an epic opening ceremony full of ruach (spirit) and regional USY pride. The roar from the crowd was intense, and it was clear that these Jewish teens were ready for what would be the most amazing week of their life. After the USY regional presidents introduced their regions, 2007 USY International President Aaron Jacobs banged the gavel, a roar of excitement swept through the crowd, and the convention began.

Since this year's theme was tzedakah, we spent much of our time focusing on the many different mitzvah projects that we can do to help the world. Every day, USYers gathered in limmud (class sessions) in which we studied what Judaism said about the many different situations involving the giving of tzedakah. How much should we give? And to whom do we decide to give it? In addition to the discussions, we took part in helping make more than 1,000 tzedakah boxes.

The most extraordinary experience at this year's International Convention was the walk to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur. On the morning of Dec. 26, all 1,000 convention delegates walked out of the Marriott Hotel for a three-mile march around the Anaheim Convention center. It was the first time I had participated in any kind of protest to fight for a cause, and, most importantly, it is a cause I feel connected to. Thousands in Darfur have been killed, left homeless and brutally injured. This is a national issue that needs to be addressed and stopped today! As Jews, we have been victims of genocide, and we promised we would never let something such as the killing of the Six Million Jews take place again. Yet a very similar situation is taking place in Darfur. We as a Jewish people need to unite and stand up to the rest of the world to help these victims.

At the end of the march, something amazing happened. Every single USYer started screaming, "One more time!" over and over. Without any warning at all, everyone rushed back outside the hotel in an attempt to do the march again. No one was satisfied with just one march. We felt there was much more that needed to be done and that there was so much more that we could accomplish. Soon everyone started joining in chorus of the song: "We're not going to take it any more." Unfortunately, we were forced back inside the hotel vicinity by the professional staff, but this situation showed me that when we as a Jewish people unite, we can accomplish anything.

Finally on Dec. 27 at 11:55 p.m., newly elected 2008 USY International President Adam Berman banged the Presidential gavel, thus officially ending the convention. Through all the activities and excitement, what I will always remember in addition to the march for Darfur are all the people I met and the friendships I made. The true beauty of USY International Convention lies within the people themselves. It's hard to think that some of your best friends could live more than 1,000 miles away. But USY is a place where teens come together from all over the continent and form friendships based on the common ground of their Judaism and a desire to change the world for the better.

In the words of Far West USY President Kesha Dorsey, "an international convention exemplifies the reason why over 1,000 Jewish teens give up their individual winter vacations to gather; USY provides for opportunities beyond the educational and religious aspects. The sense of young Jewish unity carries so much weight that makes us determined to show the world that we are the next generation of Jews, and that a wave of passion will keep us strong!"

Matt Sackman is a senior at Hamilton High School Academy of Music in Los Angeles and the vice president of communications for the Far West region of USY.

Speak Up!

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 March issue is Feb. 15; deadline for the April issue is March 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

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