On Becoming a Jewish Leader

by Meryl Press

This morning, while sitting in temple while at a Bat Mitzvah service of a family friend, the Rabbi said to her, “Now, as you become a Bat Mitzvah, we as a community recognize you as a leader in our congregation and as a leader in the global Jewish community. We hope that as you grow you will lead the community in order to create a more perfect world.”

What determines a great leader? How does one decide that he or she should take initiative and inspire people to become their fullest potential? How does someone – once realizing their potential – ultimately act on his/her passions and goals?

If there’s one thing I’ve realized over the past year it’s that inspiration and leadership is not a solo project. Over the past year, I personally have come to appreciate a phenomenon that as I child I never really understood: power in numbers. Finding something that one feels extremely passionate about is one thing, and the feeling of finding others with that same passion is an indescribable feeling.

This summer alone, I had three incredible opportunities that changed my life and my perspective on “power in numbers.” In June of 2010, I went on a Birthright trip lead by Steve Kuperburg and Alex Shapero of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC). Forty students, most who had never met before the trip, became a family within 10 short days. Forty student’s deep connections to Judaism and the Jewish homeland of Israel connected us beyond anyone could ever imagine, and these people have become a support system that will be there for me forever.

At Hillel’s Engagement Institute in the beginning August of 2010 in St. Louis, I was surrounded by over 300 students and staff members from colleges nationwide who all had one goal: to engage other students in Judaism, to learn how to create smaller Jewish communities on campuses, and to learn team-building skills not only within single campus groups, but also within the relationships with other students that were made at the Engagement Institute. The amazing and inspiring young adults that I met at the Engagement Institute inspired me to not only to further develop my Jewish education, but they also inspired me to work in my community to further develop both my Jewish identity and the Jewish identities of others on my campus.

At Israel Amplified, at the end of August of 2010, more than 100 students came together in order to advocate for Israel. We learned at Israel Amplified why Israel is important to both Jews and Non-Jews, we learned how to fight back during apartheid movements, and we made connections with other students that are also extremely passionate about Israel and about Jewish life on campus. At the end of our trip, we lobbied on Capitol Hill, explaining to government officials exactly why Israel is important to us as students, as Jews, and as citizens of the United States.

As I sit on my connecting flight to Dallas from Los Angeles, I cannot help but continue smiling knowing that within a few short hours I will be in a new city, with completely new people, jumping out of my comfort zone, as I further explore the things that I am passionate about: Israel, Judaism, tikkun olam, and power in numbers. The butterflies and nerves have been ever-present in my stomach for the past 24 hours, however the excitement and eagerness is playing a balancing act within me. In just a few short hours I will be surrounded by thousands of others who have these same passions that I do including political leaders, entrepreneurs, leaders from communities worldwide, and somewhere around 600 young adults.

Usually before I embark on any type of journey, I stop and think to myself, “What brought me HERE? How and what lead me to THIS path?” For me personally, I can safely say that the power of people and the power of the Jewish faith have brought me to where I am today. With the help of family, friends, personal mentors throughout my life, the people that have doubted me, and Hillel, I am on a plane that will take me to Dallas, and then to New Orleans to embark on yet another life-changing experience at the General Assembly as I continue to form my personal Jewish identity.

In conclusion, I think the ultimate question is one-half WHAT inspires someone to lead, and one-half WHO inspires someone to lead, to speak up, and to inspire others to ultimately reach their fullest potential. I think that I can speak for most of the 600 attending students, when I say that I am excited and ready to start learning, and to start becoming inspired at the General Assembly thanks to Hillel and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Meryl Press is a student at the University of Arizona.
courtesy Hillel, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life

[eJP note]: Meryl was one of the students featured prominently in Hillel’s current annual report, which was released at the GA. This is from that report:

University of Arizona student Meryl Press, an adopted Asian Jew, says that as a child she “was afraid that others would judge me, that I would not be accepted, that I wouldn’t be considered ‘Jewish enough.’” She credits Hillel with giving her the freedom to explore her Jewish identity in a supportive environment. Today, she is a Hillel student leader who writes about issues of Jewish identity and tikkun olam. “Through my exploration of these subjects, I have dreamed about a Jewish future in which there is a greater amount of acceptance, a shared sense of community, and a mutual goal to create a more perfect world,” she says.