A few weeks ago, I returned from attending my 12th consecutive International Convention of United Synagogue Youth. I attended 3 as a USYer, 1 as an international officer, and 8 as a member of the executive staff. I have also staffed summer programs for 7 summers, and happen to be a Youth Director in Las Vegas, NV. While USY is and has been a tremendous part of my life, it is not my full-time job, but simply something that I care about. While I’m slowly becoming one of the older staff members at these events, I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon, especially because of my experience at the most recent convention.
This year’s convention was in New Orleans, LA, with a theme of “Rebuild and Rejoice.” The educational component divided USYers into “krewes” where they were able to learn about Tikun Olam (repairing the world) through the lens of a topic that particularly pertained to them. Outside the world of USY, I’m actually a full-time middle school band director, and I was thrilled when I was asked to lead an instrumental music krewe. This experience ended up being beyond rewarding. I should also note that I’m a past International Social Action/Tikun Olam Vice President, so I was actually combining two of the most influential aspects of my life.
The first night of convention I met the members of my krewe. I had about 45 minutes with them to learn about their playing abilities, who actually had instruments at convention, etc. I decided to go along with the theme of jazz and blues as we were in New Orleans. By the end of our 45 minutes together, we had created a twelve bar blues improvisation set that we would perform the next day at a home for the elderly. Prior to our parting ways for the evening, we spoke about l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. We discussed how we were going to use music to connect a variety of generations the following day.
Upon our arrival at the Woldenberg Village Retirement Center, the USYers were warmly welcomed and escorted to the location of their first performance. I simply got the teens started, but very quickly the environment, music, and experience took over. The teens improvised and created music for nearly 20 minutes. At times, they even dabbled in melodies that had to do with the time of year. There weren’t too many residents in the room when we first began, but eventually it was packed as their music was heard throughout the halls, attracting residents from near and far. Before we left the center, we marched through halls and performed for another group of residents. Our presence and our music had undoubtedly lifted the spirits of residents and workers throughout the center.
When we returned to the convention hotel to reflect on our experience, there wasn’t one person who had a negative comment. The USYers were moved by the music, the experience, the location, and were most certainly elated by everything they were able to do. Many of them even approached me privately, saying that it was one of the best educational experiences they’ve had at a USY convention.
The next time that I met with these USYers was supposed to be a text-based lesson on the theme of tikun olam. Naturally, I requested the teens to bring their instruments with them. I turned our text study into a variety show. We split up into groups, and each group could pick one text that they wanted to create into a performance. Each group’s performance was remarkably different, but very explicitly depicted their understanding of the text. One group turned their text into more than just a variety show performance. This happened to be Christmas day, a holiday celebrated by most of the hotel workers who were helping our convention run smoothly, and they were unable to be with their families. The USYers put together a Christmas song, and before we knew it, we were providing a unique holiday experience for nearly 20-30 hotel workers who couldn’t be with their families on this holiday. The joy and appreciation on the faces of the hotel workers was priceless.
I could go on for hours and hours about my experiences at this past International Convention. If you look through the instagrams, tweets, and facebook statuses of USYers and staff alike, you’ll quickly see how wonderful this event was. I’m at a point in my life now where I’m becoming one of the older staff members at international conventions and summer programs. As a public school teacher, these events are held during the only vacation time that I get, but I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else with this time. Sure, it’d be nice to travel and/or relax, but instead I get to witness and be part of life-changing, Jewish experiences each year.