By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

More than 1,000 United Synagogue Youth teens attended the 68th International Convention in Chicago for a celebration of friendships, Jewish learning, and giving back to the local community. 

At the convention, the teens focused on being agents of societal change. They examined the topic of religious freedom in Israel, freedom of expression, human rights, the current refugee crises and how sociopolitical factors affect choice. Translating learning into action, the teens participated in hands-on social action projects, volunteering for a day at more than 30 local organizations around the Chicago area.

Several answered questions about their growing Jewish identity and their commitment to the Jewish world. As involved Jews, they said they believe in bettering the world.  Adam Rosen, 17, of Buffalo Grove, said that young Jews must be involved in the world “especially with all the hardships we face as a people in society today.”

Gabriella Cooperman, 17, of Highland Park, said she believes it is “our responsibility to make sure everyone is cared for, whether Jewish or not. Our responsibility is to help repair the world.”

As an involved young Jew, Jacob Kaplan, 18, of Deerfield, says that it is a Jew’s responsibility “to practice Judaism as we see fit in our lives, but it is our responsibility to actively make an effort to do so.”

Maddie Brim 17, of Buffalo Grove, says that “As a Jewish and secular leader, I know that it is my responsibility to share my impactful experiences with others who could benefit from them.”

A big issue facing the Jewish community, Kaplan says, is that too many Jews “are becoming less and less observant and as a result Judaism becomes less and less important to them.”

Rosen sees one of the big issues facing the Jewish community as hatred against Jews and Israel. “These issues worry me greatly, but I realize now that the only way to solve this is to work together with the communities and be involved.”

Rosen said the anti-Semitic rally last year in Charlottesville worries him deeply. “I realize now that they only way to solve this is to work together with the communities and be involved. I think we have the power to change and inspire others, even those who don’t respect our personal beliefs, to become more open-minded towards all.”

Brim believes the biggest issue the Jewish community faces is “the detachment of Jews to our faith. Whether it’s going to youth group events or working to solve problems through social action projects, there are people who are willing to go the extra mile, yet there are so many others that don’t. I feel the lack of passion is what we see most recently in the 21st century because our prayers become repetitive at a young age with little understanding of what they encompass.”

She said that USY programs give the time to sing and deeply experience prayer as a community. We must display the passion we should all have for Judaism as a whole.”

Rosen became involved in USY because he wanted a place where he felt welcome. “I was bullied for being different and not being the real me, and I have found that I have a true passion again for Judaism. I love the people I have become friends with within this community.”

Rosen is optimistic about the future of Judaism because “regardless of how you practice it, we can all work together. There’s no incorrect way of practicing the Jewish faith.”

Brim says that optimism should be synonymous with outreach, actions and awareness. “We must take our passion and turn it into something bigger than ourselves. With the hundreds of passionate USYers, I know that their optimism will be revolutionized into the initiatives that will continue to shape USY and our community for the better.”

Rosen has chosen to be involved in Jewish activities like USY “because it reinvigorates me to continue to lead a Jewish life. We will keep kosher, keep Shabbat and have services to inspire me to keep these practices at home and to live a Jewish life; all while being with old friends and meeting new friends in unforgettable experiences.”

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