More than 700 Jewish teens packed the rooms of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront from Dec. 27 to Dec. 31 for United Synagogue Youth’s 65th Annual International Convention. The event’s theme was “Think More. Do More. B’more.” and focused on issues at home and abroad.
The day’s events of Dec. 29 began with empowerment workshops in which the teens broke off into groups of five and discussed ways to advocate for issues about which they are passionate such as politics, combating anti-Semitism and raising awareness about mental illness. They then devised ideas for an action plan on large sheets of paper that they planned to implement in their home communities.
The anti-Semitism group came up with the idea of starting a social media campaign for people in USY to share their experiences and create interfaith partnerships with other marginalized groups.
“A lot of times we don’t think that we teens can actually make a change, so this showed that with just a couple minds brainstorming together, we really can make a difference and start something big,” said Michael Standler, a 17-year-old from Connecticut. Standler has been involved in USY since he was a freshman in high school and said the week’s events have given him a greater perspective on the importance of social justice.
“I’ve learned a lot about advocating for Israel and how to build a stronger connection between the U.S. and Israel and also just to do more social action,” he said.
The convention is USY’s hallmark annual event that attracts teens from around the country, but a number of attendees traveled a stone’s throw from their families. Mia Kaufman, a senior at Franklin High School, has been in USY since eighth grade and said this year’s convention was one for the books.
“It’s honestly so amazing, it’s like 10 times better than I expected it to be,” she said.
Kaufman’s friend, Andrew Burt, who also attends Franklin, has been involved with USY since middle school and said the week has been “unbelievable.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said. “It’s a thrill to be with so many like-minded Jewish teens.”
Burt said he learned a great deal about lobbying by attending empowerment sessions focused on advocating for Israel.
“There’s specific ways you’re trained in AIPAC to ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship stays strong and to ensure a better future for both countries,” he said.
RJ Tabachnick, the son of Jewish Chronicle writer Toby Tabachnick, traveled from Pittsburgh for the convention and also attended a workshop focused on Israel advocacy. He said USY events are important for strengthening peer relationships.
“I really love making friends and seeing old friends,” he said.
The teens spent the first part of the afternoon learning about the proper way to contact their congressman or congresswoman from Sam Daley-Harris, CEO of the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation. During his lecture, Daley-Harris called several teen volunteers to the stage and had them role play mock calls to their local senators, asking them to sponsor a bill aimed at reducing the incarceration rate in the U.S. At the end, one teen made a real call to Sen. Ben Cardin’s office asking him to sponsor the bill, which received noticeable applause from the crowd.
With the spirit of political activism in the air, the teens proceeded to march from the hotel to Camden Yards as an act of protest against the Orioles game played on April 29, 2015 against the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium due to dangers resulting from the Freddie Gray riots. The teens gathered at the stadium’s southwest gate and broke out in song for several minutes before speakers took to the microphone to voice their concerns.
“Today is all about voices,” said Rabbi David Levy who serves as USY’s director of teen learning. “We’re standing outside the gates of Camden Yards because after the riots took place here in Baltimore, it was decided for the first time in Major League history that a baseball game would be played right here without fans in the stands.”
Levy emphasized that the measure of not allowing fans into the stadium was done with the good intention of keeping peace in Baltimore, but it still created a chilling effect on expression. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., he explained how silence can have far-reaching consequences for society.
“It is not enough for me to stand before you and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention,” he said.
Levy challenged the teens to not be silent and to create “spaces and places” for the voices of young people to be heard.
“When we don’t [create spaces], we have silence,” he said. “We’re left with empty stadiums, empty streets, closed schools and a society that finds itself stuck. So in order to move forward, our role is to make noise everywhere.”
A student leader in USY also addressed the crowd and said it is important to realize that in a crisis, sports such as baseball often act as unifying element to a city that is internally torn.
“They [the Orioles] were not trying to make a political statement,” she said. “They were not asking anything of anyone in Baltimore. They were there just doing their part to return their community to normalcy.”
The final speaker was Danny Siegel, a former international president of USY and author who read a poem called “The Good People,” which he had written several years ago after a mission trip to Israel.
“The good people anywhere will teach anyone who wants to know how to fix all things breaking and broken in this world — including hearts and dreams. And along the way we will learn such things as why we are here and what we are supposed to be doing with our hands and minds and souls and our time.”