It’s Friday afternoon, the first day of the CTeen International Shabbaton. My chapter is huddled together in a dark subway station while parades of New Yorkers pass us by. Our chaperone pulls two ziploc bags out of her pocket. Each baggie has a set of tea lights, and a colorful flyer with the candle lighting bracha, packed neatly inside.
“It’s called mivtzoim”, she says beaming wide. “It was one of the Rebbe’s campaigns, Jews getting other Jews to do mitzvot. I’m going to see if I can find any Jewish women to give these candles to, ask them to light them before Shabbos tonight.”
Faces grew red; the discomfort was palpable. While I thought it was a great idea at first, once Sandra began walking up to girls, asking them if they were Jewish, I couldn’t help but turn away, hide, and pretend not to know her.
As I hid, I felt embarrassed, not only for about the fact that I was hiding, but about why I was hiding. I was hiding away from a mitzvah. I was turning away from an opportunity to add more light into the world. But, it felt weird; approaching strangers on the subway to ask them about their religion made me uncomfortable.
Fast-forward to 30 hours later: After celebrating an unbelievable and inspirational Shabbat with 2,000 Jewish teens, I found myself back on the subway, flying past Crown Heights and into the heart of Manhattan for the CTeen havdalah ceremony in Times Square.
Packed into a subway car with other CTeen chapters from North Carolina, the Ukraine, and a handful of random New Yorkers who chose the wrong train, my chapter and many others begin jumping, yelling, and singing.
“I said a C a T an E an E and an N….Cause I’m a Jew a proud one too…Ooh ooh ooh ooh I love CTeen…”
I was no longer afraid of letting the world know I was Jewish. Suddenly, the thoughts that had flashed through my mind the previous day when we were doing mivtozim — what will people think, this is so embarrassing — disappeared, leaving me with an energized and excited.
We were compelled to share the joys of Judaism, we needed to show off our Jewish pride, and we couldn’t contain our excitement and enthusiasm. Somewhere in Brooklyn, a man boarded the train and instead of rolling his eyes like so many others, he sat down close to us, looking intrigued and interested.
“Excuse me, are you Jewish?” someone from the group asked.
“Yes, I am.” He began to blush, and glanced around at the other individuals on the train who seemed just as confused.
The subway car began to shake as we jumped up and cheered. “What’s your Hebrew name?”
Within seconds, hundreds of teens, chaperones, and rabbis started singing:
“Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu haTishbi, Eliyahu haGiladi.” The man laughed and joined in.
“What’s your favorite Jewish song?” someone else asked.
Eliyahu takes a while to answer, “Lecha Dodi…I guess.”
“Lecha dodi likrat kala, p’nei Shabbat n’kabelah!”
My chaperon Sandra began laughing as well. She turned to me beaming and said: “You know you’re doing mivtzoim, right?”
This was mivtzoim? It felt so fun and freeing, sitting there on the train, celebrating our Jewish pride, and encouraging passersby to share our happiness and joy. As I stood proudly in front of another subway pole, I suddenly became overwhelmed with love for everyone on the train.
This is what makes CTeen different from any other youth program. The people who are part of CTeen exude Jewish pride and positivity. It doesn’t matter if it’s a random guy on a crowded subway car, or me, an active member of CTeen; anyone and everyone are treated with love. We handed out those Shabbos candles and sang on the subway because the random woman in a blue jacket is our sister, and Eliyahu is our brother. We wanted to brighten up their days. We wanted to share our love of mitzvot with them, not because we wanted to change them. but because, having had the the opportunity to sprinkle in a little happiness into someone’s life, we did. Mivtzoim affected Eliyahu just as much as it affected me, and I was the one doing it! We did it to bring light into the lives of others, but really, the light became a part of us too.
Eliyahu got off at 14th Street, with 100 new friends. 100 CTeeners got off at 42nd Street, with one new friend. That night, we celebrated our Jewish Pride in Times Square for all the world to see. There have been few times in my life where my Jewish Pride meter has been off the charts — that night was one of them. What I walked away with was more than just a fun night with 2,000 other Jewish teens in the heart of Manhattan, I walked away with the knowledge that it was me, it was my community who brought a little extra light into this warring world. And now, it’s far more difficult to worry about the future of the Jewish people, when the image of thousands of Jewish teens celebrating their faith and culture, is ingrained in my mind.