Each morning at the Anti-Defamation League's Grosfeld National Youth Leadership Mission in Washington, D.C., which took place in November, about 20 students crowded into a hotel room for student-led Shacharit, or morning prayers.
What was notable was that many of those students weren't Jewish. Each student was nominated by their school, and then chosen after writing an essay and being interviewed.
Having never been to a Jewish prayer service before, the non-Jewish students wanted to see what it was like. The tradition fascinated many, and everyone could relate to the singing and dancing.
For me, as a student who grew up going to day schools, this conference with 109 other high school juniors was my first opportunity to interact extensively with non-Jewish students.
I was apprehensive at first. My tendency was to mingle with the other Jews. But this conference was about eliminating discrimination and hate in our schools and communities, and I knew it was necessary to leave my comfort zone to appreciate the diverse backgrounds of the people there. I would soon find out the most rewarding conversations I was to have would be with non-Jews.
When the delegates were broken up into small groups, I had the opportunity to discuss diversity, racism and tolerance with Jews and non-Jews alike. I sometimes discuss issues of hate and racism with my friends at Shalhevet, but generally we all derive our beliefs from Jewish understandings discussed at school. However, brainstorming the topics with non-Jews at the conference threw me into contact with points of view I was not used to.
For example, while they have varying stances on Israeli politics, everyone I have spoken with at Shalhevet is pro-Israel. They believe Israel should exist. Some at the ADL conference, however, disagreed with this viewpoint, and in this regard, I sometimes felt uncomfortable.
In one particular instance, a delegate explained that his sister had lived in Israel for a year and had returned with a predominately pro-Palestinian view of the situation. While I believed his claims were insufficiently supported, I lacked the knowledge to refute his remarks. Still, I was comforted in finding that just because he claimed to be pro-Palestinian did not mean he thought Israel shouldn't exist.
Speakers brought in by the ADL described how they had made a difference by leading the fight against racism and hate in their communities. Between speakers, including civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), students took part in breakout sessions. There, we discussed how hate can manifest itself, and later on, how to fight it by joining school advocacy groups and lobbying politicians. On the last full day of the conference, we visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which helped to drive home the reality of what can happen when discrimination and racism go unchecked.
Although the programming was inspiring, the greatest highlights were not the planned events. Rather, they were the spontaneous ones created by students, such as the Shacharit services, which I organized, along with Alex, another Shalhevet student, and Justin, a public school student from New Orleans.
At our Shacharit services the first morning, Justin led the prayers with great kavanah (faith). His house had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina, forcing him to live temporarily in Georgia. Still, he plans on returning soon and maintains his tremendous faith in God.
I prayed for a better understanding of the people and points of view I was interacting with. The fact that non-Jews were present helped me realize that even if we had varying political and religious beliefs, we had all come to the conference for the same reason. Additionally, the services allowed me to reconnect with the comfort zone I was used to back home.
A constant battle within traditional Judaism is over the extent to which Jews should interact with the secular world. Every Jew has a personal degree of willingness to explore outside the religion. While we don't want to assimilate, we must communicate with each other to better interact with our surrounding society.
The ever-growing contingent of non-Jews at our prayer services may not have understood the prayers, but they could relate to the singing and dancing, and the fact that they were experiencing something different. Just as they have explored our culture, we should attempt to explore theirs, while still maintaining our Judaism.
Benjamin Steiner is a junior at Shalhevet, where he serves on the Model UN and writes for The Boiling Point, the school newspaper.