The following outgoing address was delivered by 2017 USY International President Noah Lee at International Convention in Chicago, IL, December 27, 2017.
Once, a musician of great, but unknown talent came to town. He stood on a street corner and began to play. Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the beautiful music whose equal they had never heard.
Before long, they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street started dancing joyously.
But then a deaf man walked by and wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in the middle of the street?
USY, when I first heard this teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, I pictured us, a collective of individuals from around the continent and the world, the proud flock who dance together, sing together, laugh together, and rejoice together. We are the townspeople! And in the one moment described in the story, we made magic happen.
For many of us, the reason that we’re in attendance at this convention is a magical moment just like the one described in the story: an epiphany, an enlightenment, an exposure to new and addictive music. What I am describing is commonly referred to in the USY lexicon as “#myUSYmoment”
What makes USY moments unique is that rather than these moments being about me, myself, the individual, they are about recognizing the unity of the collective, they are about achdut (unity), and they are about serving the world with joy. When you boil it down, USY moments are embodied by my favorite phrase: Ivdu et Hashem B’Simcha (Serve the Lord with Gladness).
I remember my USY moment. Freshman year, the Kabbalat Shabbat of our fall convention. What a thrill it was to join the collective jump, hum, kick, and roar. It was ecstatic.
But USY moments come in all shapes and sizes. Take Daphne Furman, for example, who described her moment as “the best day of her life.” She, along with the rest of G3, were gathered around a fire in Makhtesh Ramon singing campfire songs and stargazing.
When Daphne described her moment on Facebook, I imagined myself there with her and the rest of G3, staring up into the vast, dark, night sky and being comforted by the warmth of the fire of the surrounding group. Daphne says that “there’s this love for Judaism and for USY that radiates inside of me.” Her words.
Daphne’s moment was about simcha (joy).
Or how about Jackie Mindlin from NERUSY, whose moment was as simple as an unexpected hug from a charismatic USY leader. Her moment broke her out of her shell and showed her that it is “okay to be me.”
When Jackie described her moment, I felt as though I were there with Jackie, embracing my new USY friend as though we hadn’t seen each other in years, happier than ever because I felt wanted and loved. Jackie’s moment was about unity and simcha, joy.
Just like the townspeople, Jackie and Daphne experienced perception altering love and support that exist nowhere else. They heard the music for the first time, music that helped form the wonderful women who they are today.
These moments for Jackie and Daphne, just like the gathering of townspeople around the enlightening musician, were none other than life-changing, holy.
And while these moments so deeply impact and empower so many of us in this room, these are essential to the USY experience, and that without these moments, it can be very difficult to become an insider.
What if you don’t have a moment? What if you walked through USY like the deaf man in the town? Or, even worse, what if the music stayed contained among the initial group of people who listened to it? What if the magic of USY never spread? What if nobody is an eved hashem besimcha?
That being said, USY still has a tremendous impact. Thousands of Jewish teens walk away from the USY experience with a deepened connection to their Judaism and a more sophisticated outlook on the world.
An example of a program that impacted both the USYers and the world took place in the small but mighty Hanefesh region. Westport USY put on an event in which that chapter collected food and clothing donations before sending USYers across New York City to distribute the clothing and warm food to those in need. USYers “felt really humbled and proud to be able to have the opportunity to help others. Also, it made people more appreciative of what they have.”
Talk about Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha! Talk about bringing people together to make a tangible change in the world. That is what USY is about.
Another example is Shabbat across Seaboard in which chapters across the seaboard region celebrated Shabbat on the same night in their various local communities. There is no doubt that this event brought people closer together, while giving potential members a taste of USY.
THIS is what I’m talking about. Seaboard, YOU exemplified Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, rejoicing in the gift of Shabbat while creating inclusive and welcoming hubs of USY across your region.
The midnight run and Shabbat across Seaboard are two examples of moments that brought people in, inspiring youth to give back and making them feel a part of something much larger than themselves. Simultaneously, we have the potential to impact thousands more.
Currently METNY USY and 2018 International President Zachary Zabib said it…18% if Jewish teens are current engaged in Jewish life, which means that 82% have no idea what they’re missing out on, and it’s incumbent on each of us to bring them in.
It is essential for USY to cultivate the minds of its constituents now, in high school… But if we can’t spread the music to others, then it is futile! If we can’t spread the music to others, then it is futile, worthless!
So let’s think differently. Why does USY start in 9th grade? Let’s invite elementary school kids and bring them in before they get caught up with all the mishagas (craziness) of high school with competing extracurriculars.
What’s amazing about our potential to reach those youth is that we have a system in place for engaging pre-high schoolers, Kadima.
What if the focus of our gatherings shifted from us having a good time to, how can we provide transformative experiences to young people?
I invite you to see USY different;y, see it by the potential it has to make the world a better place and see it as a vehicle for developing young minds and nurturing hearts. I invite you to join me in believing that USY can no longer be about the USYers.
USY must now be about those not in USY, potential members, prospective members, and those in need. It is not enough for capable and excited teens like yourself to be participants in a program.
We must focus to empower every attendee, ensuring that each of you feels that you have a stake in our movement and that you are able to impact lives from a young age.
The power of USY and, moreover, the power of JUDAISM is community, is engaging with others, is teaching, is Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha. USY is about service. USY is about spreading the magic, teaching the music to everyone.
As a proud member of Nativ 37, USCJ’s gap year program in Israel, I get the opportunity to develop my Hebrew skills informally in the streets and formally at the Hebrew University, the best academic institution in the Middle East.
When my Ulpan teacher taught us the Hebrew word for high school, tichon, I realized that there was something I was deeply misunderstanding about the role of high school that is embedded in the Hebrew language.
Tichon not only means high school, but also the middle, the center, in between elementary school and university. This is certainly obvious but so often taken for granted because the role of high school is extremely formative of a person’s life, so much so that the Hebrew language makes a point of its “central” role in the development of youth.
This notion is supported by numerous developmental studies, and as Rabbi Wernick loves to say, each additional teenage year of Jewish engagement leads to exponentially greater Jewish engagement later in life.
Centrality, rather than basking in the sunlight of glory and selfishness, also connotes a sense of responsibility. It is not enough to recognize that being the center of a person’s development leads to USY years being the best and most exciting in a person’s life.
We must, as a movement, understand that there are formative, crucial educational opportunities that come BEFORE high school that we take for granted.
It’s as if we have the power to share the music with thousands of teens without them even expecting it. And we must remember that USY is about service, USY is about including as many as possible in transformative experiences.
I am so proud to say that we provide those transformative experiences. We provide them at chapters like Seattle Nimratz leading their congregation in service and ruach, we provide them in regions like HaNegev that collectively collected hundreds of pairs of socks to donate to those in need, and we provide them on our summer experiences like DREAM that transformed the lives of local kids in the Dominican Republic.
We provide them on USY on Wheels when Bus B and Pacific Northwest gathered in front of the Rosie’s truck to do publicity and meet with their employees. We provide them all over the world on USY Israel Pilgrimage with programs like L’Takayn Olam, the summer volunteer trip in Israel.
I remember volunteering at a Russian old age home in Haifa and feeling inspired by the USYers who were there with me. All over the world we praise joyously, we are ovdei hashem b’simcha from far and wide.
And, across the board, it is no coincidence that the common form of transportation among those trips is none other than the bus, a form of transportation that so many in this room have called home for 4-6 weeks. Because when I picture a bus full of teens, I don’t see it at face value.
When I picture a bus full of teens, teens motivated to make change in the world, I think: What if each of these teens became the driver of their own bus, inspiring hundreds of other to ivdu et hashem b’simcha, introduce them to the music, and change their world and the world around us by bringing them in on the magic of USY.
That’s what we have the power to do.
אמר ר’ אלעזר אמר ר’ אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא
Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ḥanina said:
תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם
Torah scholars increase peace in the world,
שנאמר (ישעיהו נד, יג) וכל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך
as it is said: “And all your children [banayikh] shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:13).
אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך
Do not read your children [banayikh], but your builders [bonayikh].
USY, as I have the privilege of standing before this room, I do not merely see children. I see builders. I see musicians, I see bus drivers, I see love, and joy, and peace. Most of all, I see potential.
Think of your ניגון.
Think of your song, think of whatever gets you up in the morning. And let it be a reminder of your service, of your responsibility to share this music with others now that you’ve been so profoundly impacted by it.
Now that you have lived the magic of USY, it is incumbent upon you to pass it on, not just to peers, but especially to the malleable, young, and curious elementary school minds that we aren’t impacting.
At the end of the day, USY, this isn’t about the music. It’s about the musician. And more than you know, that musician can be and must be YOU.