Being raised Orthodox in the United States, I am often aware that my peers and I do things differently than others: We go to shul on Saturday instead of to the mall, we go to private schools, we dress differently and we recognize that there is a higher being above us. But we do not realize until a much later age, when we leave our sheltered community, just how different we really are and how these differences truly affect us.
I had one of those eye-opening experiences in March, when 17 students from Shalhevet High School went to the University of Pennsylvania to compete at the Model Congress, a competition that drew 600 students from 10 states to debate political issues in a simulated Congress.
Although for Shalhevet it turned out to be a very successful trip, the success was not achieved easily.
The first night of the conference, Thursday, had gone extremely well, and on Friday I woke up excited for what the morning held. I felt as though the team and I were truly dominating in our committees and were up for awards; there could not have been better feelings circulating through the group.
But I knew that at the end of the day, things would come to a screeching halt.
The team quietly discussed the inconvenience of leaving the meeting to bring in the Sabbath. Familiar songs, traditional food, prayer and discussions about the weekly Torah story would replace presentations on government. All I could think was how much I wanted to be at those three crucial meetings that were happening on Friday night and Saturday.
But a private debate was transpiring in my mind -- the debate about sacrificing one's principles to obtain success.
My earliest memories of sundown on Friday nights involve observing the Sabbath. We set aside this 25-hour period every week and endow it with sanctity. It punctuates the rhythm of my week now as it did then. I enjoy it because it allows me to check out of the competition and materialism of every day life and then return to it feeling invigorated.
Now, suddenly, as I addressed the Senate floor that Friday morning, my beloved Sabbath had become an obstacle to winning the big prize. While the other participants would continue debating at the conference, I, and my colleagues from Shalhevet High, along with Orthodox students from two schools in New York, would be keeping the Sabbath. It's a tradition, an obligation, but at the moment it didn't feel like grounds for celebration.
We were all aware that according to some opinions, students attending these meetings did not necessarily desecrate Shabbat. We could refrain from using microphones or pens, and just be part of the debate.
The team shared with one another their feelings on the detriment not attending sessions could possibly cause, but we decided to sacrifice our personal need for academic recognition to teach the others at the conference, and ourselves, the importance of Shabbat.
The laws of Shabbat are designed to help us maintain the spirit of the day. Shabbat is about menucha, what we call rest. Not rest as in sleeping, but resting from the stresses of the outside world so that we can connect with Hashem, with God. When we keep the laws, but violate the spirit, we have not kept the menucha and we are not connecting to Hashem. If we had participated in the conference, it would have been impossible to fully concentrate on the development of our relationship with Hashem, even if we have kept all of the laws perfectly.
With this separate debate and these difficult concepts in mind, we arrived at the award ceremony Sunday morning nervous that our hard work and dedication would not be acknowledged. To our relief we were given 10 awards -- the third-most of any team at the conference. We were proud to be part of that "Jew school" that missed the three meetings, but came out ahead anyway.
The gavels and the papers they handed us will always remind us not only of the exhilarating, noisy moment when we won public recognition, but of that quiet moment when we realized that recognition was not the highest reward.
Alison Silver is graduating Shalhevet this month. A version of this article ran in Shalhevet's newspaper, The Boiling Point.