What a Paper Plate Says About My Jewish Identity
By Rudy Brandt
I just returned from living in Israel for four months on a high school semester study abroad program called NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. I was looking around my room at all of the things that made up who I was before I had left and found new parts of myself among the ruins and sand in the homeland of my people.
As my eyes glanced over to my bed, my desk and then my shelves, something caught my attention.
Sitting on the shelf was a paper plate, propped up by old books. The plate was expertly decorated by a couple of Crayola markers and in clear block lettering it read, “Rudy Brandt: Most likely to spend every weekend of her high school career going from one Jewish event to another.” I smiled to myself as I read the paper plate award and thought, “how true – how totally true.”
The plate award is about a year old and was made for me by Phil Hankin, my advisor at the East Bay Jewish Teen Foundation (EBJTF), a program run by the East Bay Jewish Federation. Phil knew me prior to the program because he worked at URJ Camp Newman where I have spent the past 10 summers of my life, and where I will be working as a CIT this summer. The irony of the plate award is that unlike most of the others that were awarded to my peers, mine wasn’t really a joke. I was born in 1998 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and attended my father’s rabbinic ordination a few weeks later. At six months old I was living in a cabin at URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas, and by the time I was a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California, I knew that Reform Judaism was the center of my world and a huge part of what makes me who I am.
My involvement in the Reform Movement and specifically URJ Camp Newman shaped my identity as I grew up. I spent my summers Israeli-dancing, learning about interactive T’fillah, and finding God not in a stuffy sanctuary but among the redwood trees and the song lyrics that made me feel safe and warm. For every sunburn I came home with, I also had countless memories and friends that reminded me that Reform Judaism means finding my own path. The values I learned each summer stuck with me and were expanded upon as I grew older. Values like tikkun olam and tzedakah made their ways to the forefront of my mind and begged for a way to be incorporated into my life year round.
When I entered high school, I heard about NFTY, the URJ’s high school youth movement and I looked for a way to get involved. My synagogue didn’t have a NFTY-affiliated youth group at the time so I went to my local Jewish Federation to seek a different outlet. I was directed towards the East Bay Jewish Teen Foundation and was immediately intrigued. The purpose of the program is to bring together Jewish high schoolers and teach them how a nonprofit foundation operates. The program, which consisted of first year board members and second year leadership council mentors, taught me that foundations raise money and allocate it to nonprofit organizations that fit the foundation’s mission statements. My Board and I created a mission statement around the impacts of global climate change and learned what it meant to “give Jewishly.” We looked at the Maimonides ladder of Tzedakah and allocated the money we raised to make a difference in our local community, in Israel, and around the world.
With my EBJTF experience and a summer in Newman’s social action session “Hevrah” under my belt, I was determined to continue making a change. During my sophomore year of high school, I founded and became the president of my synagogue’s first NFTY-affiliated youth group BESTY, so that my friends and I could get involved in NFTY. My experience in EBJTF had taught me about determination and that Jewish values were woven into our daily lives and, if we let it, to our giving. I applied to be a leadership council mentor as a second year board member for EBJTF and mentored first year members as we drafted a mission statement about aiding youth at-risk.
I spent my weekends hopping from Shabbat dinners to synagogue youth group meetings and then to teen foundation board meetings. I would spend my weekend-long NFTY events asking everyone I met if they were interested in donating to the cause. At the end of my sophomore year, it was only fitting that my paper plate award declared, “Rudy, Ms. Busy-Super-Jew.” But I took away more from this program than a hilariously accurate award. Fueled from the Jewish values and Reform Movement experiences I had at Camp Newman and later in NFTY and the East Bay Jewish Teen Foundation, I learned countless lessons about leadership, giving back, and incorporating Judaism into everyday life in a way that we ourselves can mold.
Now, as an alumnus of EBJTF, a CIT at Camp Newman, and a newly elected NFTY Central West Region Regional Board Member, I am beginning to think back to what these programs meant to me and what they have done for my Judaism as I live my life. The truth is, each experience is very much its own, but together they have taught me that my Judaism and my Jewish values are like the circular challot that we eat on Rosh Hashanah. For the Jewish New Year, the circular shape of the sweet bread symbolizes the completion of an entire cycle – an entire year. In this context however, the circle depicts the connection of all of my Reform Jewish experiences, each teaching me more about myself and encouraging me to find new ways to express my Judaism, each woven into the next in the scheme of my life-long Jewish journey.