“The Jew I Want To Be”
by Susan Klau
I believe every person has a passion in life. Whether it’s collecting baseball cards or singing on stage, everyone has something they love to do. It happens that my love was – and still is – Jewish youth programming. Judaism was incorporated into my life from a very young age, and going to temple was a regular activity for my family. I used to spend Fridays in the back row of the synagogue playing cards or board games, and though I had the mission of board game victory in mind, it was there in the back of the room that I started learning all of the words and tunes to every single prayer. Eventually, I didn’t come to temple to play games but to be with my community.
When I was 8 years old, my parents sent me to the URJ Crane Lake Camp for an entire month. That single decision, in my opinion, was the best one my parents could have made for me. If it weren’t for that little plot of land in the Berkshires, or the 300 people who lived on it for the summer, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. That camp and those people taught me valuable lessons I will carry forever, like how to get along with other people and how to be away from my parents – everything from making my own bed to learning how to be a better listener. I even led prayer and read from the Torah at camp, two activities that are extremely special to me. For me, Crane Lake has always been a safe zone, where I can be the person I want to be – and the Jew I want to be.
As I grew older, I felt a void during the 10 months of the year when I wasn’t at camp. It was incredibly difficult for me to not have that safe place where I could be with my friends who knew me so well. Fortunately, when I became a freshman in high school, I to joined SCOOBY, Temple Sinai’s youth group, of which I am now president, as well as NFTY-NE. My involvement in Jewish life sprang from two months a year to 12.
I’ve since traveled the world with my camp and NFTY family. I went to Dallas with NFTY in 2011, and to D.C. with them this past December; next year, I’m planning on going to Los Angeles with them, as well. With my camp friends, I’ve visited Montreal, Prague, Poland, and Israel. We ate falafel in the streets of Jerusalem and touched the wall like our ancestors before us; we cried at Auschwitz and touched the barbed wired fence that kept our ancestors in. In Israel with my Crane Lake friends, I was able to push myself to do things I wouldn’t normally do, like hike through the Negev, endure a four-day army training, and float in the Red Sea holding my best friend’s hand, even though I’m afraid to swim. Because of my Jewish involvement, I am constantly growing as a person.
One example of how much I’ve learned from Jewish youth engagement is from this past March. Because of how passionate I am for NFTY, I was nominated by to be on next year’s NFTY executive regional board, a huge honor. I began preparing for my role and learned about what it meant to lead on an executive level. In NFTY, however, if someone isn’t nominated but still wants a chance to serve on board, they can choose to challenge – pick a position they’re interested in and run against the person nominated for that position in an election. That’s what happened to me: I had to run against someone for my position, and I presented a speech to the entire region on my behalf. Unfortunately, I lost to the person who challenged me for the position.
Though I was initially disappointed, I’ve since come to terms with the loss. Throughout my Jewish journey, I’ve learned that I don’t need to be on board or to be a leader in my NFTY region. It’s not the title that makes you love something. No matter what, I’m going to love NFTY. That acceptance is sometimes very hard to find, but Judaism taught me that, and I’m going to continue to come back to NFTY and be the same person who’s inclusive of others and just likes to have fun – like I was before elections. And I’m going to be back working at Crane Lake this summer, helping children to have the same experiences that I did as a young girl. I can still be a leader, without having a title. Even without board, I know I’m going to be a role model to the younger kids, and that is incredibly important to me.
It makes me so sad to know that many kids aren’t able to have the same Jewish experiences I’ve had. Eighty percent of Jewish kids don’t continue with Jewish life after their b’nai mitzvah; that means that only 20% of Jewish kids do NFTY or go to Israel, the very experiences that changed my life. Judaism is so incredibly special to me, not only because of the religion itself but because of the people it allows us to meet and the experiences is allows us to have. The memories I’ve made from Jewish events will be the stories I tell my children some day.
My synagogue, Temple Sinai in Brookline, Mass., recently held a service themed “One Day,” focused on what we would like to see in the future. In this spirit, I ask a favor of Jewish parents, parents-to-be, and anyone who has any influence in a child’s life: Next time a Jewish kid is thinking about going to a sports camp, tell them about the URJ 6 Points Sports Academy, a Reform camp that specializes in sports advancement. Next time a Jewish teenager wants to go on a trip, send them to Israel wish KESHER, the URJ’s Birthright Israel trip organizer. Next time a Jewish high schooler is feeling down or alone, send them to temple youth group or to a NFTY event; this will not only show them a Jewish option but will make them a friend along the way. Together, we can help change that 20% to 100%.
My parents just thought sending me to Crane Lake would be important for me. They had no idea that it would change my life.
Susan Klau is a junior at Brookline High School and was the president of her Temple Youth Group SCOOBY (Temple Sinai, Brookline MA). This summer will be Susan’s fourth year participating in NFTY. After seven years at camp and one summer in Israel with NFTY in Israel, Susan will return to the URJ Crane Lake Camp as a Machon (counselor in training).