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October 6, 2005

A ‘Spectacular’ Summer of Inspiration

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/a_spectacular_summer_of_inspiration_20051007

I reach over and switch on my bed lamp. The bright red digits on my clock across the room scream scary numbers -- it's 3:30 a.m., and I'm wide awake.

Only a day after returning from a six-week trip to Eastern Europe and Israel, it's no wonder that my body's timer is completely off schedule. Even though I wish sleep would overcome me and put and end to my tossing and turning, the dark silence that fills my house gives me time to miss what my life had been for the previous six weeks: noisy, somewhat chaotic, sleep-deprived and utterly spectacular.

My body is back on schedule now, but everything else has remained altered, from my perception of what Jewish peoplehood means, to my commitment to Jewish activities -- even the way I will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Every year during the High Holidays, my rabbi at Temple Beth Am makes an appeal for Israel Bonds to our congregation. However, this year, I suggested -- and he agreed -- that teenagers be the ones to inspire the congregation to support Israel.

I feel that my generation, as leaders of the future, stand in a unique position. We have the responsibility to remind our parents that we cannot take Israel for granted. As teenagers, as we hold on to our last strands of innocence, it is us who can perhaps bring the state of the world into perspective.

The teenagers of the Jewish community should take the opportunity to share their incredible summer experiences and help secure Israel's future.

Considering how impactful the trip was, it's hard to believe now that I had such a hard time deciding to spend six weeks on a youth trip to Eastern Europe and Israel.

I had gone to Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school, through eighth grade and opted for Marlborough, a non-Jewish private high school in Hancock Park. Many of my school friends had chosen to spend their summers at secular study-abroad-type programs at universities across the U.S. and Europe.

But many of them lacked the one thing that had been such a monumental factor in my summers' past: Judaism. For seven summers I had been immersed in a vibrant and observant Jewish community at Camp Ramah in Ojai.

When I chose to go to a non-Jewish high school, I vowed to myself to remain connected to Judaism through involvement in Jewish organizations such as Ramah and United Synagogue Youth (USY). But now I saw that vow disintegrating. Other extra-curricular activities were slowly taking over my weekends. I would often find myself at a swim meet rather than at a USY convention. Shalom Club meetings just did not seem to fit in my schedule.

I was disappointed in myself for not being more involved in Jewish life, so I knew that Israel had to be my primary destination of the summer.

Little did I know that my decision to go on USY Eastern Europe/Israel Pilgrimage to the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Israel, would be the greatest decision of my life.

Once I had gotten home from the trip, my friend asked me whether I enjoyed Eastern Europe.

"'Enjoy' is the wrong word," I responded.

Seeing gorgeous synagogues that are filled with tourists on a daily basis instead of a morning minyan is not uplifting. Visiting the ghettos of Tereizinstadt, Warsaw, and Krakow as well as Auschwitz, Maidanek, and Treblinka was unbelievably harrowing and emotional.

Yet I found myself so grateful to be there because I realized that being with a group was so important. Our only comfort was having a friend's shoulder to cry on, and it taught me that true friendship is precious.

Our group would walk through the gates of a ghetto or concentration camp, yet unlike 60 years ago, two hours later we would walk out alive. My generation will be the last to hear live testimony from survivors, and I felt proud that I was fulfilling my responsibility to ensure that the world will never forget.

Needless to say, by the conclusion of our 10-day visit in Eastern Europe the group was anxious to get to Israel.

Israel is perhaps the most incredible place on the face of the planet. There was never a boring minute -- walking through the streets of Jerusalem and seeing people wearing orange or blue-and-white bands, or seeing an Ethiopian family going about their daily lives peacefully, made the entire trip worth it. Because rather than passively visiting castles and cemeteries, as we did in Eastern Europe, we were able to experience a part of living Jewish history.

I had been looking forward to practicing my rusty Hebrew with other Jewish teens, but it was actually French and Spanish that I could practice just as frequently. While spending a night at a Bedouin tent, we met teen groups from Argentina, France, Great Britain, Mexico and Spain. Even though we came from all corners of the Earth, spoke different languages and dressed differently, we were all connected through our love for Israel.

Talking with shop owners on Ben-Yehuda Street or hearing army stories from our Israeli counselor made me realize that Israel is a country of people. It is a place where our people, the Jewish nation, can always feel safe and welcome.

Now, I have started my junior year of high school with new resolve -- this year, I will not let Judaism pass by me. By teaching my friends about the politics of disengagement or telling them about the beauty of Israel, I feel that I can be an ambassador for a place that is close to my heart. USY events will become a regular part of my life because the friendships I have made this summer are ones that I hope to keep forever.

It is this inspiration I hope to bring to my fellow congregants when I get up before them on the High Holidays and ask them to support Israel Bonds. Maybe one day, perhaps many years from now, I will be lucky enough to call Israel my home. Meanwhile, I'll do what I can to remind others how important Israel is, and to inspire other teenagers to have the kind of summer I was blessed to have. n

Natalie Goodis is a junior at Marlborough High School in Los Angeles.

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