Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs
Life Member, Hadassah Northern New Jersey

Hadassah and Young Judaea

Photo courtesy of Hadassah.
Photo courtesy of Hadassah.

The warmth and camaraderie of being a high school student in the Midwood community of Brooklyn, NY, where about 95 percent of the students were Jewish, made for a very warm and welcoming community of like minds – different strands, but basically similar.

Moving on to Quinnipiac College in Hamden, CT, where less than one percent of the student body was Jewish, was quite an eye-opener!

Suddenly, I had to monitor my normal, common “lingo.” “Oy gevalt” was met with “Huh?” while “Nu? Hurry up” would elicit a response like  “Old? Go slow?” and “Oy vey iz mere” was met with blank stares!*

Often, other students’ topics of conversation were strikingly uncomfortable for me,  as were, frequently, the discussions in class. Particularly around holidays. I sat through enough many Christmas, Lent and Easter stories, Bible readings and enough Thank the Lord’s to last me a lifetime.

One very lovely spring day, I got up for class and happily put on my brand-new beautiful blouse. The day started out perfectly: I felt lovely in my new outfit and off to class I went.

I got as far as the hall when the other girls in the hall saw me. They started yelling and saying unkind things and I was perplexed. Why? Why would these “nice” girls, who had been so friendly previously, turn on me? I had no idea.

And even when I was told, I still didn’t understand. For some bizarre reason, they had a problem with my orange blouse. The amount of anger displayed was beyond my comprehension. They screamed at me that, on this day, St. Patrick’s Day, wearing orange was disrespectful. HUH?? WHAT?? I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was completely clueless. I never heard of any of it. Did I have to change my blouse because they didn’t like it or should I wear it proudly because I do like it?

When the note with “HITLER MISSED YOU IN HIS OVENS” was pinned to my dorm room door, it only reminded me of the importance of maintaining our Jewish pride, our convictions and our beliefs, as did many of our ancestors, who withstood horrific treatment.

My decision to not report this incident was based on my gut reaction that there is no adequate punishment for stupidity. In my humble, or naïve opinion, I believed I might be able to influence the perpetrators by ignoring their note – even though they obviously meant for me to strike back – and merely continue being a mensch, thereby defeating their goal. (Overtones of the orange blouse came to mind!)

While I was like a fish out of water at Quinnipiac College, when an opportunity presented itself for me to become an advisor to a Young Judaea group in the next town, I jumped at the chance. Meeting with this Jewish youth group may have been more valuable to me than it was to the youth in the group.

It was bashert, fate, to find a circle of like-minded young people who just happened to need an advisor when I happily wanted to volunteer! Becoming a Young Judaea advisor helped to make my time in college much more bearable. For me, it was an escape to be among others who had similar ideals, values, history, and family backgrounds, and in this group, discussions were NOT uncomfortable for me. Being in my element was a sweet and desirable change, if only for those times the group met. Being able to freely talk about all things Jewish with these teens, to advocate for Israel, to be proud to be Jewish, to be uninhibited in my delight in my Judaism, was cathartic.

The kids picked a charitable cause, collected tzedakah and donated all the money. They organized and prepared holiday plays for a local nursery school. Baking hamantaschen for Purim was enjoyed by most, if not by me (I hate to bake and cook), but I love eating!).

In this environment, the focus was on Chanukkah, not Christmas; Purim, not St. Patty’s Day; Pesach, not Lent. And all the Jewish holidays were of great interest to me.

Being a Young Judaea advisor to these wonderful students, these Jewish students who had chosen to be part of Young Judea, was so uplifting for me. I was thoroughly ecstatic each time we met. I was totally grateful to Hadassah for taking these youngsters under its wing like the Shechinah and supporting their worthwhile endeavors.

Since this was their youth group, the kids came up with their own great, creative ideas for programs. They looked out every detail and carried out all the Young Judaea programs. Whether plays, fairs, learning days – all the programs were their creations (a local Hadassah chapter contributed info sheets so the kids could learn all the relevant facts and accurate information relating to Israel).

Being the advisor gave me the opportunity to encourage these kids to be active in their communities since community service is vital to our Jewish identity. Perhaps help out in soup kitchens, perform a social service action, visit seniors at a local nursing home – in short, to make tzedakah a value they cherish.

In retrospect, while at school, I went from being forced to be tightlipped, disinterested in anything Jewish, needing to be careful what I wrote in term papers and concealing where I went every Saturday morning to embracing and strengthening my Jewish identity.

Bottom line, our Young Judaea meetings served two purposes: The teens became engrossed in all things Jewish during our time together and I got to feel really Jewish once a month!!

Even as the kids moved on to their college years, several stayed connected with me. Happily, some became advisors to other Young Judaea groups in their newfound surroundings.

The founders of Young Judaea had great foresight. The idea of encouraging and emboldening Jewish youth to promote and validate Zionist ideaIs was an idea of exceptional foresight since these youngsters were the very ones we needed to continue the dream. The developers of this initiative looked into the future and understood that these youngsters were the next generation, and we would need them to spread the truth to other teens, just as I had.

Young Judaea’s goals would be carried out through youth clubs, conventions, camps, Israel programs and other activities. Even back then, social activism by our youth was valued and respected. Therefore, it was clear to Hadassah members and the originators of Young Judaea idea that its emphasis on social action and Jewish identity were critical to educating our youth.

Young Judaea, founded in 1909, remains the oldest Zionist youth organization in the United States. Brilliantly, it was created specifically for Jewish youth to be facilitated by Jewish youth. Reaching young people and encouraging their love of Israel and Zionism was another brilliant move. Young Judaea has always prided itself on its openness, on including teens of all stripes and from all backgrounds, and it has remained nonpartisan and nondenominational,

Thank you, Hadassah, for your foresight in supporting a youth group for teens and supporting Young Judaea by developing scholarship funds!  I am not at all surprised that such a successful women’s Zionist organization would promote and support such a successful Zionist youth organization.

*”Oy gevalt” is Yiddish for “Oh my God!” or “Good grief!” “Nu” is Yiddish for “Well?” or “Tell us already “Oy vey iz mere” is Yiddish for “Oh, woe is me!”

About the Author
Rabbi Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs is a Life Member of Hadassah and spent her youth in Brooklyn, volunteering for such organizations as Junior Hadassah, the Civil Air Patrol, BBYO, and Young Judea. As an adult, she became a member of Hadassah, BBW (B’nai Brith Women), Women's American ORT (Organization for Educational Resources and Technological Training) and The National Council of Jewish Women. She has a Masters in rehabilitation of the handicapped. She taught for 25 years and upon retirement became a hospice chaplain. She and Steve, her husband of 53 years have two children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren!
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