What they are saying about USY Summer Programs

The Atmosphere of USY on Wheels

Someone who is given a brief explanation of USY on Wheels would hear this basic description: USY on Wheels is a trip across the country by bus with 40 kids. The reaction is sometimes, “Wow! That’s amazing!” and sometimes it’s a puzzled look, and the person is left wondering why someone would want to sit on a bus for hours on end, going across the country and back. The part that is not always included in short descriptions like these is that USY on Wheels is much more than just a cumbersome bus taking up parking lot space in various locations across the country. USY on Wheels is, in my opinion, mostly about making tight bonds with other people and creating memories that will always warm my heart.

To me, the most amazing yet indescribable part of USY on Wheels was the environment of the bus. I don’t necessarily mean the physical bus we were traveling on – I am referring to our bus as a community. Whether it’s breaking into a spontaneous ruach session on the road, or doing fun bus-bonding at the national parks, or just leaning on each other during a long drive, we were all comfortable with one another. We quickly became closer than just good friends – we became a tightly-knit family. After just a month-and-a-half, the relationships we had were those of people who have known each other for years. Our time together was not only measured by miles traveled, but by how close we had become in such a short amount of time. From week to week, we had changed where we were, both socially and geographically.

Even though we’ve all gone our separate ways, not a day goes by that I don’t think about USY on Wheels. Even now, several weeks after coming home, I will break into a big smile or even a fit of laughter at random points during the day just thinking about someone or something from USY on Wheels. I was recently talking to someone who went on USY on Wheels 30 years ago, and I could tell that the memories she had were still meaningful to her. She told me that it felt like it was just yesterday, and I know that it was because of the lasting impression it made on her, and I imagine that in 30 years it will be the same for me.

Though I am trying to capture the feelings I have about USY on Wheels in three paragraphs, I really cannot truly explain what it is like, other than this: I know the feelings and memories I have of USY on Wheels do not compare to anything else I’ve ever experienced before, and I know that I will hold on to them for many years.

– Laura Shrago, “Classic” USY on Wheels Participant

The Kind of Knowledge Not Found in Textbooks

Life-changing does not even begin to describe the summer I just had. USY on Wheels East, Bus E, is more of a home than I could have ever imagined. But I must admit, I was hesitant to embark on this adventure. I hadn’t had great summer experiences in the past, I knew no one going on this trip with me, and I signed up for it because my mom said it would be fun. But the second I walked into the meeting room for the first time, and I saw the first glance of my summer, the anxiety began to fade, and I was ready for the summer of a lifetime. Everyone was surprisingly welcoming to a point where I questioned whether it was real life. I had never been in such an inclusive, happy environment. Yes, the kids were the majority of the make-up of that environment, but the staff contributed to the feel of that room as well. They were so excited to guide me through the next four weeks, just like their staff had done for them. They were so passionate about USY on Wheels, and their devotion was to soon rub off on me.

Over the next four weeks, I was finding who I was. As a Jew. As a friend. As a student. As a Wheelnik. As an individual. As a team member. I never thought I would truly begin discovering these things the way I had before college. But I did. I now know more about me, and that feels pretty great, especially since I’m about to start my journey through high school.

How I found out who I think I am right now? That I’ll never know for sure. Was it the feeling of being accepted by everyone so I didn’t have to try to be someone I’m not? Was it those moments of silence by those beautiful spots in nature when I was allowed to pray, and, at long last, speak with my God? Was it having so much fun with people I loved? Was it bonding so quickly that it felt like a lifetime? Was it accepting the fact that this wouldn’t last a lifetime so I had to take it all in as quickly as possible? Was it something else?

In addition, how could I have learned this much while having as much fun as I did? This kind of knowledge you don’t get from textbooks. You get it from USY on Wheels. The beauty of all of it was that it never really ended for me. The second I got home, and got the 20 million texts, and Facebook messages from people I had met just 30 days prior, made me realize that this was just the beginning of friendships, stories, laughter, and so much more…

– Maddie Burton, USY on Wheels, East Participant

Our Rich, Jewish History

When someone asks me about my summer on USY’s Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar, I could go on for days recounting the entire trip. The memories that were made this past summer are innumerable, and the rich history that I learned is priceless. Everyday in Poland brought me new emotions that I never knew I could feel, and spending time in my homeland, Israel, with my peers was exhilarating. One event in particular that gave my summer a new meaning, happened in Poland, where I would never expect to be so happy.

Group 5 celebrated our first Shabbat in Krakow. That Friday was especially heart-wrenching as we visited two of the more famous extermination camps of the Holocaust, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Though we barely knew the people in Group 5 by this time, we could depend on any member to comfort us as our emotions ran wild at the horrific sights. After these difficult experiences, we boarded the bus and returned to our hotel in Krakow.

After a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv, we walked to The Olive Tree, one of the greatest spots for a good meal in Poland. There we had a delicious Shabbos dinner. I remember sitting next to two girls who were best friends before our trip began. Though I felt a bit intimidated by these girls, they included me in their conversations, and were as friendly as could be. I now consider these girls two of my best friends, along with the other 47 on group 5. We then had a beautifully energetic and spirited ruach session.

The next day, something unbelievable happened. My paternal grandfather, who sadly passed away before I was born, was a famous composer and conductor of Jewish music by the name of Abraham Nadel. Group 5 attended Shabbat morning services at a large orthodox synagogue in the Jewish section of Krakow. The balcony was crowded, it was hot, I was tired, and the service was dragging on. As the Musaf repetition of the Amidah was coming to a close the Hazzan sang “Sim Shalom Ba’Olam.” My Zayde wrote this particular melody. As I listened to the song that my family and I sang on the day that I became a Bat Mitzvah, tears came to my eyes. I then sang out proudly, with love and excitement. That was the moment I realized that Judaism has common bonds throughout communities all over the world.

As the summer progressed, I was fortunate enough to attend many different synagogues; I saw and participated in the different customs of Jewish communities in Poland and Israel. I found similarities and differences between each congregation that welcomed Group 5 as their guests. I will never forget hearing my Zayde’s Sim Shalom in a country half way around the from my home in New Jersey. Whenever I hear that rendition I will remember that moment in Krakow, where I felt at home and comforted in a Jewish community that I had never been to. Every moment of this past summer was beautiful in its own way. I thank Group 5 and USY everyday for enriching my Jewish identity greatly.

– Zoe Cook-Nadel, Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar Particiapnt