Social justice on tap at USY international convention


More than 700 Jewish teens packed the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront from Dec. 27 to 31 for United Synagogue Youth’s 65th annual International Convention. With a theme of “Think More, Do More,” it focused on advocacy on issues at home and abroad.

The Dec. 29 events began with empowerment workshops. The teens broke off into groups of five and discussed ways to advocate for issues that ignite their passions, such as politics, combating anti-Semitism and raising awareness about mental illness. They then devised ideas for an action plan on large sheets of paper which they planned to implement in their home communities.

The anti-Semitism group developed the idea of starting a social media campaign for people in USY to share their experiences and creating interfaith partnerships with other marginalized groups.

“A lot of times we don’t think that us teens can actually make a change — so this showed that with just a couple minds brainstorming together, we really can make a difference and start something big,” said 17-year-old Michael Standler of Connecticut. Standler, who has been involved in USY since he was a freshman in high school, said the week’s events have given him a greater perspective on the importance of social justice.

“I’ve learned a lot about advocating for Israel and learning how to build a stronger connection between the U.S. and Israel — and also just to do more social action,” he said.

IC, as the convention is known, is USY’s hallmark annual event that attracts teens from around the country, but a number of attendees traveled a stone’s throw from their families. Mia Kaufman, a senior at Franklin High School outside Baltimore, has been in USY since eighth grade and said this year’s convention was one for the books.

“It’s honestly so amazing. It’s like 10 times better than I expected it to be,” she said.

Kaufman’s high school friend, Andrew Burt, has also been involved with USY since middle school and said the week has been “unbelievable.”

“It’s a once in a lifetime thing,” he said. “It’s a thrill to be with so many like-minded Jewish teens.”

Burt said he learned a great deal about lobbying by attending empowerment sessions focused on advocating for Israel.

“There’s specific ways you’re trained in AIPAC to ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship stays strong and to ensure a better future for both countries,” he said.

RJ Tabachnick, who traveled from Pittsburgh for the convention, also attended a workshop focused on Israel advocacy. He said USY events are important for strengthening peer relationships.

“I really love making friends and seeing old friends,” he said.

The teens spent the first part of the afternoon learning about the proper way to contact their member of Congress from Sam Daley-Harris, CEO of the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation. During his lecture, Daley-Harris called several teen volunteers to the stage had them role-play, making mock calls to their senators asking them to sponsor a bill aimed at reducing the incarceration rate in the United States. At the end, one teen made a real call to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s office, asking the Maryland Democrat to sponsor the bill, and he received noticeable applause from the crowd.

With the spirit of political activism in the air, the teens proceeded to march from the hotel to Camden Yards as an act of protest against the Baltimore Orioles-Chicago White Sox game played last April in an empty stadium due to dangers resulting from the Freddie Gray riots. The teens gathered at the stadium’s southwest gate and broke out in song for several minutes before speakers took to the microphone to voice their concerns.

“Today is all about voices,” said Rabbi David Levy, who serves as USY’s director of teen learning. “We’re standing outside the gates of Camden Yards because after the riot took place here in Baltimore, it was decided for the first time in Major League history that a baseball game would be played right here without fans in the stands.”

Levy emphasized that not allowing fans into the stadium was done with the good intention of keeping peace in Baltimore, but it created a chilling effect on speech. Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he explained how silence can have far-reaching consequences for society.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without at the same time condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention,” he said.

Levy challenged the teens not to be silent, but to create “spaces and places” for the voices of young people to be heard.

“When we don’t [create spaces], we have silence,” he said. “We’re left with empty stadiums, empty streets, closed schools and a society that finds itself stuck. So in order to move forward, our role is to make noise everywhere.”

A student leader in USY also addressed the crowd and said it is important to realize that in a crisis, sports such as baseball often act as unifying element in a city that is internally torn.

“They [the Orioles] were not trying to make a political statement,” she said. “They were not asking anything of anyone in Baltimore. They were there just doing their part to return their community to normalcy.”

The final speaker was Danny Siegel, a former international president of USY and author, who read from “The Good People,” a poem he had written several years ago after a trip to Israel:

“The good people anywhere will teach anyone who wants to know how to fix all things breaking and broken in this world — including hearts and dreams — and along the way we will learn such things as why we are here and what we are supposed to be doing with our hands and minds and souls and our time.”

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