By Noah Lee
“How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!”
Brotherhood and sisterhood is a really special gift. There’s something beautiful about sharing your upbringing with another person or people, growing and developing alongside them, and perhaps knowing them better than anyone else in the word.
While I certainly am blessed to have the siblings that I do, my first experience at USY International Convention felt to me like what I always imagined it would be to reunite with a long lost sibling. Hundreds of Jewish teens coming together from across the North American and global Jewish communities reminded me of a giant family.
Families share values, priorities, quirks, and something deeper. So when I, for the first time, met teens just like myself with similar interests, hopes, thoughts, and approaches to living Jewishly, I immediately felt at home.
Home, though, is safe and insular. What would happen when my extended family interacted with the world? What happened if we ventured outside the hotel?
On Monday at IC, USYers had the opportunity to face the world by giving back. On Christmas day, USY went out into the city and served the people in need on their holiday.
Every single aspect of USY International Convention had embedded in it the theme of D’ror Yikra, the Road to Freedom. International Convention is not merely about celebrating freedom, it’s about acting on it. By going out into Chicago and being there on a day when the city needed us most, USY certainly acted on our freedom to make change.
I personally volunteered at San Jose Obrero Mission. This homeless shelter served as room and board for those in need for any number of reasons. What mattered was that we were there. Our presence, our cooking and serving them a Christmas meal, made a difference in the lives of those who needed uplifting. The executive director of the home told us that never before had a group come volunteer on Christmas day. USYers utilized their freedom from celebrating the holiday by choosing to honor its meaning and help those in need.
Another powerful story is that of Mike Hirsch, a New York-based staff member, and the five USYers who volunteered at Operation Jesus, an organization that helps care for the homeless. They showed up, collected bags of donations, and drove around the streets of Chicago distributing clothes and backpacks.
When the group finished passing out what they had, they voluntarily decided to go buy containers of coffee and donuts to pass out on the streets as well. The group at Operation Jesus taught us the importance of going above and beyond, of beautifying an act of hesed (loving kindness), and using their freedom of choice to do even more than they had been assigned.
What I find most powerful about this story is that at some point in the day, Mike realized that his backpack had gone missing. After frantically wondering its whereabouts, Mike realized it was accidentally distributed among the other bags! While Mike was initially disappointed, he recognized that his bag would mean much more to the person on the streets receiving a new backpack and speakers than to him. Thus, Mike’s positive outlook reminds us all that, as long as we have the right attitude, everything we do has the potential to leave an impact.
This sentiment was again echoed the following day, when we heard from local religious leaders, Pastor Chris Harris and Rabbi Michael Siegel, about the freedom to build relationships with those who are different.
The two religious leaders and friends, one from the south side of Chicago and the other from the North Shore, collaborated to uplift their respective communities. They taught us that we are “better together,” standing strong as “brothers from different mothers” (Pastor Harris’s words), coming from similar backgrounds.
The Jewish people have struggled throughout history and today stand on strong footing in the Western world. Pastor Harris charged us to prioritize working with struggling communities in order to be stronger together and uplift each other.
For example, Pastor Harris and Rabbi Siegel set up a program in which Jewish students from Rabbi Siegel’s synagogue tutor Christian kids at Pastor Harris’ church. We were inspired to utilize our freedom today to help ensure that freedom rings for everyone across the country and the world.
As our time at the convention comes to an end, I’ll end with a blessing that applies to both USYers and the world we attempted to impact this week:
For my brothers and friends, I ask now for peace.
In honor of the hundreds of USYers who came together to celebrate and give back, I hope that they only knew peace and that they only gave peace.
But the Hebrew phrase does just refer to people generally. It refers to brothers and family. Peace comes when we see each other as family, as did Rabbi Siegel and Pastor Harris, as did Mike when he willingly gave his backpack to a stranger, and as did the folks at the homeless shelter who were grateful for our Christmas visit.
“How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.”
Noah Lee is 2017 International President of USY.