"Welcome to the GA."
Erika Levy and Alie Kussin-Shoptaw, seniors at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, easily spotted in their bright orange volunteer vests, stood by the escalators at the Los Angeles Convention Center, greeting arriving United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA) attendees and directing them to meeting rooms, halls and hospitality suites.
"We have to be like Abraham and reach out and greet everyone, even if it's a little uncomfortable for us," said Kussin-Shoptaw.
The girls, both 17, were part of a cadre of teen volunteers brought together by Sulam, the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of Los Angeles' Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). The group included 15 students from New Community Jewish High School, 20 from Shalhevet High School, 11 from the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and 20 from United Synagogue Youth.
The students, already committed to the Jewish community, learned about the mitzvah of greeting, instructed by Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate executive director, and Dan Gold, director of Sulam, before being dispatched for a three-hour volunteer shift. Afterward, they were free to attend sessions, visit the marketplace or hang out in the teen volunteer lounge.
"These kids think it's so cool to be part of this," Gold said.
For those students from the JSU, an organization that provides ways for Jewish teens in public high schools to become more Jewishly involved, the GA was an extension of a leadership weekend held on Friday and Saturday.
"This is a great opportunity to learn for ourselves, as well as help others," said Mike Ghalchi, 17, a senior at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills and president of the school's JSU chapter. He added it was particularly valuable, because "going to public school, we're not exposed to religion every day."
For 20 members of United Synagogue Youth (USY) from Los Angeles-area chapters, the GA was also the culmination of a long regional leadership weekend at Camp Ramah.
These young people, many of whom had stayed up till 4 a.m., traveled from Ojai on Sunday morning in time for the opening plenary session, where, among other speakers, they heard speeches by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as well as Karnit Goldwasser, wife of captured soldier Ehud Goldwasser.
"This supports everything they're doing in USY," said Merrill Alpert, director of youth activities for USY's Pacific Southwest Region. "These kids are our future Jewish leaders."
While Sulam targeted those who will ideally work in the Jewish community, Do the Write Thing hosted a group of 30 college students and recent graduates who will possibly be reporting on the Jewish community.
"We introduce them to the concept that Jewish journalism is a profession," said Leni Reiss, former managing editor of the Phoenix Jewish News and American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) liaison for 16 of the program's 17 years. "Here they get a sense of the living, breathing, organized Jewish world."
Through this program, which is cosponsored by The Jewish Agency, the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization and AJPA, students attended workshops, including one on "Covering Israel in the American Jewish Press."
Additionally this year, for first time, they were given assignments, asked to fan out into different sessions each day and bring back quotations for the GA Daily, distributed to attendees. They are also expected to write an article about the GA for their school or community paper.
For Ayli Meyer, 21, a University of Judaism student from Houston, the GA is an opportunity to gain some real-life experience. She serves as editor of the school newspaper, the Casiano Chronicle, but, she said, "there are not enough journalism classes at school."
Another participant, Erin Kelley, 23, a Reno resident who attends Truckee Meadows Community College, is hoping to make aliyah in a year.
"I want to combine my knowledge of Israel and my writing skills," she said. Elon Shore, the Hagshama Mid-Atlantic regional director, believes that having Israel as a central theme helps these young people connect with the Jewish community. He referred to studies demonstrating that an Israel experience is effective at connecting young adults to Judaism.
Students also respond very well to social concerns, according to Jeff Rubin, Hillel's associate vice president for communications, citing a Hillel report.
This year, new to the GA, Hillel sponsored Just for a Day, a day of social action where 300 Jewish students from universities across the United States and Canada, who had come for entire GA conference, joined together on Sunday with another 700 college students, mostly from Southern California.
Just for a Day encompassed projects sponsored by six different organizations. These ranged from Project Angel Food, where students delivered hot meals to home-bound patients with AIDS, to Jewish World Watch, where, at Congregation B'nai David-Judea, students learned about advocating for Darfur. At all locations, students were joined by local celebrities, including "West Wing" actor Josh Malina and comedian David Brenner.
At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, located downtown, more than 100 students helped unpack cartons of donated canned and packaged foods and sorted them for Thanksgiving distribution.
"I think a lot of people look at college students as lazy," said Nicole Landa, a USC junior. "As you can see here, students really do care."
From the University of Arizona in Tucson, 60 students piled into vans after the school's homecoming Saturday night and drove nine hours to participate in Just for a Day, according to U of A student Michelle Miller.
Half the group worked at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, distributing hygiene packs that they had preassembled, and on Skid Row. The other half worked at the Downtown Women's Center.
Then, after attending a concert that evening at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, where Guster, an alternative rock band, and The LeeVees, a Jewish holiday music band, entertained Hillel participants, they climbed back into their vans for the nine-hour return trip.
According to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, volunteer days such as this are effective ways to unite Jewish students across the denominational spectrum to work together under the banner of tikkun olam (healing the world).
"We feel that everywhere we go we should leave our mark," he said.
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