2018-01-31 / Voice at the Shore

Local teens enjoy “a huge feeling of Jewish connection”

Voice shore editor

From left: Jocelyn Schwartz, Sidra Seymour, Carly Riggs (of North Jersey) and Sara Strenger at a NFTY-PAR weekend. From left: Jocelyn Schwartz, Sidra Seymour, Carly Riggs (of North Jersey) and Sara Strenger at a NFTY-PAR weekend. What would teenagers describe as a “great weekend”?

For three local Jewish teens, it was a chilly winter weekend spent doing volunteer work and sharing Shabbat at a Pittsburgh synagogue with more than 100 other Jewish teens who are part of the regional Reform youth movement, NFTY-PAR.

The three local teens— Jocelyn Schwartz, Sidra Seymour, and Sara Strenger— all said that the best parts of the weekend were making new friends, connecting with so many other Jewish teens, and being in a place where being a Jewish teen was the norm.

“It was super fun. There was definitely a huge feeling of Jewish connection at this thing. People sang Hebrew songs and prayers and everyone danced to them,” said Schwartz, a senior at Mainland Regional High School and a graduate of Kulanu High School of Jewish Studies. “There are not many Jewish kids in [our local] area, so it’s nice to be in a place where there are so many Jewish teens in one room,” she added.

Strenger, a junior at Mainland who also attends Kulanu, agreed. “Being with so many other Jews was cool. We sang a lot! Everybody was into it. It was strange being in a place where everyone was Jewish, where being Jewish was normal. We spent a lot of time standing in circles, holding hands, and it just felt normal. That was cool.”

“It made you feel like you were really part of something,” added Seymour, a junior at Cape May Technical High School, who said she is one of very few Jewish kids there. “This makes me enjoy Judaism.”

The winter weekend of volunteer service and Jewish bonding, called “WINSTY,” is an annual event offered by NFTYPAR (which stands for North American Federation of Temple Youth-Pennsylvania Area Region). Teens from across New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania traveled by bus to Pittsburgh, where they stayed with host families from Jan. 12- 14, and participated in Jewish and volunteer activities at Rodef Shalom, a “gigantic” Reform synagogue, said Schwartz.

The local girls stayed with synagogue members who fed them a “huge breakfast” each morning, played “Sorry” with them before bed, and drove them to and from the synagogue both days. “They were very nice and hospitable,” said Schwartz.

Options for volunteer work included helping a local food bank, tagging and organizing clothes donated to a local thrift shop, volunteering at an old age home, and making fleece scarves for women and children from a local women’s shelter. Schwartz chose to make scarves for the women’s shelter the first day and spent the second day helping at the local old-age home, socializing and playing bingo with residents.

She enjoyed everything, but most memorable for her was bonding with other teens during Shabbat and Havdalah services, which were all about creating a feeling of Jewish connection. By design, the services were interactive, engaging, and fun.

The Friday night service, run by the Rodef Shalom temple youth group, featured a rap version of the Torah portion. Everyone loved it, said Schwartz. Throughout the service they sang lots of songs and “everyone got up and was dancing at the end of the service— that was fun.”

In recognition of Martin Luther King’s birthday, racism and bias were actively discussed during services and programs throughout the weekend.

“We talked about the difference between bias and racism. Bias is more subconscious; you might treat someone differently because of race but not hate them because of it,” she explained.

The teens also talked about bias as it related to religion (especially bias against Muslims), gender, sexual preference, and wealth/economic status. “The discussion was woven into the service,” Schwartz explained.

One of her favorite parts of the weekend was the Saturday night Havdalah service.

“Everyone joined hands and formed a spiral in a dark room. It was very nice and spiritual. I felt very close to the people there.”

At that point, everyone had spent a lot of time together, and many new friendships had formed.

“It was definitely one of the best NFTY events I’d ever been to,” said Schwartz, who has been active in Reform temple youth at Congregation Beth Israel and regionally throughout high school. “I made a lot of new friends and met a lot of new people.” 

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