A View From the Driver’s Seat: USY on Wheels

Five staff, one driver, and 48 kids have boarded this vessel of learning, leadership, and engagement for the last 53 years. This is no ordinary summer camp experience but something extraordinary that every Jewish teen in North America needs to be aware of. This is USY on Wheels.

by Josh Ull

The jolt of a key ignited a fiery engine and breathed life into a monstrous vehicle. There was a flash of the lights, a robust outburst from the exhaust pipe, and we were off.  The second those thick black rubber wheels hit the ground there was pressure. Round and round the axle turned as heat-generated friction propelled our metal box of ruach up, down, and around the crisscrossed roads of America’s spectacular landscape. For six and a half weeks the clock ticked by, a race against time to do something different.

7-13-32Five staff, one driver, and 48 kids have boarded this vessel of learning, leadership, and engagement for the last 53 years. This is no ordinary summer camp experience but something extraordinary that every Jewish teen in North America needs to be aware of. This is USY on Wheels.

In the summer of 2013, I had the incredible opportunity of joining a team of dedicated educators and lay leaders committed to the mission of the USY on Wheels program and United Synagogue Youth (USY). From New Jersey to California and back, participants – or “Wheelniks” – navigated the USA exploring Jewish communities and site-seeing hot spots. Museums, national parks, quirky roadside attractions, and regional favorites lined an itinerary of non-stop adventure. As a former participant, I was unaware how much this trip had impacted my Jewish identity and young adult life until I saw it from the other side.  I was determined to identify each teen’s potential and help them discover widespread acceptance through the power of Judaism.

USY on Wheels is focused on social action, Israel advocacy and awareness, religion, education, and leadership. There is something for everyone on the bus. Together, we highlighted our strengths and built upon our weaknesses to truly create a thriving Jewish community. From South Dakota to Oregon to Louisiana, the Wheelniks became excited about tefillot (prayers) because they learned from each other and had 24-hour support to lend a hand. I watched as spirituality (often what we fear most) brought these teens together. They danced next to waterfalls, prayed above craters, and even turned a simple Montana rest stop into a robust morning minyan.

We sang to the elderly, collected school supplies for needy children, and landscaped a city park. Through tangible actions, we proved the importance of acknowledging those down on their luck and realized we could be the ones enacting change in the world. We were performing mitzvot beyond a traditional tzedekah can! This passion became a contagious commitment. The bus became the hub of Jewish life, non-stop laughter, music, games, stories, and friendships. While some took naps, others took pictures. While some played cards, others played guitar. And while some decorated their windows, others decorated their siddurim. We each had something to give and learned so much from those around us.

As staff, the moment when you know you made magic occur is when a line of kids eagerly wait for your attention to practice their Torah reading or review the activity they’re planning. It even came months afterward, when I received a frantic phone call from Wheelniks eager to ask questions about upcoming holidays and halakhik rituals they wanted to try at home.

We are providing high school students with real life skills to move forward from their communities and thrive as global Jews in the 21st century. I have seen the impact a summer on the road has on Jewish teens. Responsibility became accountability as I watched Wheelniks learn how life can’t function without everyone lending a hand. Vaadot (committees) range from tikun olam (repairing the world) to meal preparation to Shabbat decoration – and even the prestigious league of loading champions determined to fit every suitcase in the lower bays in record time. With everyone given a specific responsibility, we grew closer as a family. It requires all hands on deck, takes endless enthusiasm, and the ability to learn from spontaneous road trip incidents that make you act on the fly.

As we disembarked each night and entered our hotels or the homes of gracious hosts, we could not wait for the next day to begin. When the Wheelniks went to sleep, the staff hit the ground running, evaluating the day and collaborating on how to improve tomorrow. What social icebreakers could we implement to improve group dynamics? Who wanted to read Hebrew and how could we start the process with them? What community service could we perform in our next city to truly give an immersive experience? We explained the history of that rodeo in Wyoming, heard the tales of addiction at a one of a kind rehab facility in California, and saw a baseball game in Atlanta where we danced for hours until we appeared on the big screen. It was about covering hundreds of miles in a day and watching the craziness of a week come to a screeching halt. Shabbat would hit like a check-engine light – you couldn’t believe it was back, you didn’t know what to expect, but you were forced to take a break. To watch as 50 bodies invaded supermarkets, swarming the aisles in an effort to stock up on supplies for our meals was invigorating. Checking for hechshers and navigating the store provided each participant with the opportunity to become aware of kashrut and its involvement in everyday shopping.

It was most rewarding to watch each Wheelnik grow individually throughout the summer. Our success came from the personal attention given as we catered to the needs and interests of each person. Whether it was the quiet one coming out of his shell or the great public speaker being given the chance to teach her peers, I believe that leaders are born when given the chance to fly. As the days go by, the comfort of being Jewish resonated in everyone’s heart and developed into a strong sense of pride. Mandatory kippot during meals and services became a natural voluntary accessory atop many heads as they experimented with their Judaism. Our little community expanded much farther than our cushioned chairs, decorated windows, and inside jokes. From fellow Jews to those of other faiths, our mere presence sparked awareness in those around us. People we met asked us questions and praised our work, and seemed to gain renewed faith in their own religious practices. In addition, as all the USY on Wheels buses gathered in California for LA Week and Disney Day, eyes widened as they realized they were part of something much bigger than themselves. A movement of passionate young Jews converged in one location where, through storytelling and friendly conversation, they became part of a Wheels family that cared deeply about the continued existence of the Jewish people.

As we rolled back east, the tired gas pedal crept to an unfamiliar halt. Overhead bins were rid of leftover materials, remaining snacks were packaged for the hungry, and the gas tank rested on empty. Seats were upright, decorations taken down, and the water bottle that had been bouncing around the floor for weeks was finally placed in the trash. The odometer marked its final mile and those cumbersome black wheels of glory asked for a well-deserved rest. The summer was about the rush that sideswiped your balance, made time hard to fathom, and lethargy an evil you could overcome. The schedule of rising in the morning in a new and unfamiliar place, weary as you made sense of how far the next black top drive of painted double yellow lines would take you. Hebrew rolled off their tongues as the words of our ancestors spread throughout a hotel meeting space and energized a congregation. Breakfast was always followed by travel resulting in a jam-packed itinerary of irreplaceable memories. With every turn came a transformation of growth that left no child or staff the same person they were when they came on. I saw the power of a bus, the open road, and the endless energy emitted by our youth.  It’s easy to go with the familiar route, but I encourage all teens to listen to the words of Robert Frost and “take the road less traveled.” Do what’s different, have something phenomenal to share, and return with the tools to inspire. USY on Wheels is ready – all you have to do is get on the bus.

To find out more about USY’s Summer Programs, visit www.usy.org/escape