Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just Walk Beside Me and Be My Friend

Last week, in the midst of a meeting at United Synagogue, I was astonished to discover that the woman I had just met 20 minutes earlier was, in fact, someone I had previously known some thirty years ago.

The clue was the way she used her hands when she spoke. A passionate and articulate marketing professional, the woman – Pam Goldfarb Liss - had requested a meeting to discuss our new Strategic Plan. My initial reaction was gratitude for the opportunity to meet such a committed member of one of our nearby affiliated synagogues, the Orangetown Jewish Center… and then her hands went to work, punctuating and underscoring her points.

In an instant, a long-ago memory was evoked. I know her, I realized.

But from where?

And then three letters formed instantly in my mind: USY.

After a quick volley of questions – beginning with “Are you from Minneapolis?” – we nailed down the connection. She had been the chapter president of USY and I was newly arrived from Winnipeg. The year was 1984. It was a difficult time in my life involving loss and dramatic transitions but my USY chapter became my haven, my home, my community.

Having discovered our common bond, we both broke into wide smiles that didn’t abate until the meeting ended. The realization that we were teens together in USY was, quite literally, a conversation changer. Once that fact was ascertained, we morphed from organization head and synagogue member into friends, family, fellow sojourners. 

That powerful moment of serendipitous connection happens all the time, everywhere around the world. The shared bond of having been a USYer becomes a shorthand for a whole set of values, beliefs and aspirations.

And though there is a rush that comes from reconnecting with, say, old school and camp friends, the USY bond is especially deep and durable.

It is not merely the excellent programming that USY provides for Jewish teens; it is the lifelong relationships that USY fosters. Time and again, we find that USYers remain bonded with Judaism, with Israel and with one another.

In today’s mobile, disconnected, Jewishly-fragmented world that sense of meaningful relationship is rare.

To encourage the sustainability of USY, we at United Synagogue have been improving the USY experience by bolstering signature programs like Israel Pilgrimage, Nativ, and USY on Wheels, while launching several new initiatives.  We have raised more scholarship money than ever in order to allow more teens to experience our transformational immersive programs.   We’re intensifying our focus on social action and service learning, empowering USYers to become change agents in their communities and the world.

Connecting with Pam through USY last week lifted my spirits, made me feel ageless. The passage of thirty years meant nothing. In a flash, I recalled the transformative power of being part of this most unique fellowship at that most vulnerable moment in my life. I remembered the soul-stirring Shabbat experiences, the rousing songs we sang, the commitment we shared to being fully Jewish, fully North American, fully alive.

And as I was reflecting on the happiness of my USY memories, I remembered a conversation I had two summers ago with a young woman on Pilgrimage. The word she had used to describe her experience was “transformative.” When I pressed her to detail what she meant, the young woman told me that USY helped her face her fears.

This was a hefty claim and I must have looked skeptical so she continued. Walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, she told me, had been a terrifying prospect for her as she was highly claustrophobic, with an extreme fear of the dark to boot. So large was her dread that she almost sat out the trip; however, she was encouraged by her peers to face her fears with the reassurance that inside the tunnel she would be protected at all times with a USYer in front of her and one immediately behind her.

And so she was emboldened to take a journey she never would have taken otherwise.

Over the past few days, the story of this young woman has evoked a song that brings me back to my USY days; that the teens still sing. Known as “Lo Yisa Goy,” it begins:

Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow
Don’t walk in back of me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
And together we will walk in the way of Hashem

My serendipitous reunion with Pam reminded me of something I had always known: to paraphrase another popular song, I’ll never walk alone. Because of USY, I have companions walking beside me in sacred friendship, seeking the way of Hashem.

There is still space to journey to Israel on Pilgrimage or Nativ, with scholarship money available. Give your child the transformative gift of USY. For further information, please visit USY's summer programs information page.  

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