By Josh Ull
There is great power within great hot chocolate. The ingredients are simple, the experience is filled with a sweet, bold flavor, and the warmth of the product brings groups of friends together. Each sip transports us back to the extra marshmallows we’d sneak into the mug on cold snow day mornings or the whip cream we’d find under our noses after tipping the drink just a little too far. No matter how much you age, how much money you make, or how many variations of the classic drink are invented, you’re never too cool for something so deliciously warm.
Similar to hot chocolate, you’re never too cool for USY. Whether you finish a summer experience or graduate from high school, you’re never done. You’ve moved passed the craziness and awkward social realities of high school, but the knowledge and memories you’ve inherited from those four years will stay with you forever. In fact, in some way, shape or form, they’ve probably influenced who you are today.
For the past six years I’ve been humbled with the recurring opportunity to spend my summers traveling under America’s spacious skies and through its amber waves of grain as a proud staff member for the “Classic” USY on Wheels program. “Classic” USY on Wheels is the flagship North America based travel experience for Jewish teens. Students meet in New Jersey and travel via bus to California and back over 6.5 weeks. Different from other teen tours, USY on Wheels is a lifestyle that I like to call the “Wheels Life.” The Wheels Life consists of immersive chesed (kindness) opportunities, traditional Jewish observance with a contemporary twist, and leadership development all through the lens of Jewish life on the open road.
I emphasize to my participants that the Wheels Life never ends. The skills they learn and the friendships they form are in their very own toolbox that they’ve already practiced using in the real world. Maintaining your Wheels Life can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. When we empower our teens to turn their education into application, they see Judaism as more than just an extracurricular activity.
To help keep the Wheels Life alive, I’ve organized reunions with my former Wheelsniks. Every Thanksgiving-eve (when everyone is on break) since 2013, I’ve reunited with at least one participant to reminisce and continue our friendship. This year, with the help of the USY Alumni Association, I was able to treat close to 30 of my former Wheelniks spanning six years of road-tripping to hot chocolate and a spirited evening at the Bryant Park Winter Village in NYC. From current college students to current USYers who are also alumni of the Wheels program, all gathered to reunite with old friends and inherently network with others who shared a unique exposure to Judaism through America’s magical landscape. We talked about Jewish life in college, job opportunities, and all the fun that has happened since our last reunion. There were endless hugs, new friendships formed, and an underlying warm enthusiastic bond between those in attendance. We all know that our friends from this organization are those we don’t have to see everyday, but when we reunite we can pick up right where we left off.
USY cares deeply about its alumni and is working hard to strengthen its multi-generational community of former USYers and staff. I took the initiative to remain an accessible Jewish role model for my Wheelniks. I’ve also made it a priority to stay in touch with my own contemporaries because as we age, we go through life together. We celebrate smachot (celebrations), support one another through hardship, and never forget that something special brought us together.
I am so proud of Sophie Jacobson (Bus C 2015) for excelling in her first year of college and bringing much needed love into the world, for Jared Rogers (Bus B 2014) who commutes many hours back to the Northeast to give back to his home region through staffing weekend events, and to Sophia Cohen (Bus C 2013) who is President of the Conservative Jewish community on her college campus and a now two time Wheels Classic staff member. From summer 2013 to 2018 the routes may have changed and the stories are always different, but what consistently stays the same is the quality of our staff and our teens who choose to go on a journey that lasts beyond the final bus stop.
I challenge every alum to find their own route back to USY. Whether you volunteer your time in the region you currently reside, make a financial contribution to one of the many scholarship funds, or simply spread the gospel of “why USY,” you’ll ensure personal Thanksgiving-eve gatherings like mine or formal alumni events happening in major cities throughout North America can expand in the years to come. The return on my investment has always been worth it.
On behalf of the 243 Wheelniks I’ve had the privilege to travel with and the many more I’m eager to guide in the future, I am writing on my own accord to thank USY and the USY Alumni Association for the 30 hot chocolates last November. That’s all it took. They proved that similar to my favorite winter beverage, USY is simple, but truly profound in its execution. Each reunion or phone call transports us back to late nights at conventions or quirky roadside stops that remain with us forever. Age or career doesn’t matter because you’re never too cool for something so deliciously warm.
Spots are filling up fast! Visit www.usy.org/escape to join the USY on Wheels family this summer!
Josh Ull is a six-time USY Summer Experience staff person, former USY International President, and a participant on the Nativ College Leadership Gap-Year program. When he’s not out on the road helping teens discover the Wheels Life, he is the Director of Student Life at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.