Avi S. Olitzky

Olitzkys on Wheels

Olitzky Kids as Future Presidents

As a result of the pandemic and otherwise canceled summer plans, I had the unforeseen and remarkable privilege to take my children on a road trip. We drove westward across South Dakota. We hiked, we climbed, we asked questions, we debated, we laughed, we cried—and we ate a lot of ice cream. I will forever recall it as one the greatest weeks I have ever experienced.

But travel across this country is not foreign to me.

Ask anyone who knows me well: I generally do not let a week pass without making a reference to USY on Wheels.

USY on Wheels is a six-and-a-half week cross-country teen tour for Jewish high-school aged students affiliated with United Synagogue Youth. The students begin their summer odyssey in New Jersey and make a giant loop across the country (some routes dipping into Mexico and other routes traversing across Canada). A combination of home hospitality and hotels serve as accommodations—the means of transport a full coach bus.

I was privileged not only to participate in this program as a teenager, but perhaps more importantly, I served as staff and group leader for several summers.

If I can be so bold: these summers were some of the most formative contributions to my development as a Jewish leader. Further, even though I am a fervent supporter of Ramah Camps and summer Israel trips, I would state categorically that USY on Wheels is one of the most important products (and opportunities for youth) of the Conservative Movement.

Sunrise prayers at the Grand Canyon; seeking out kosher food in Sheridan, Wyoming; chanting Eikhah on Tisha B’Av together as a group; discussing the juxtaposition of the First White House of the Confederacy and the Southern Poverty Law Center mere blocks apart; learning how to live and connect Jewishly all across this great country. These are but a few of the takeaways and experiences one can expect on USY on Wheels.

But for me – plainly put – I fell in love with the amber waves of grain and the purple mountains majesty. I was privileged to see and show so many corners of our beloved country that I otherwise would never have seen.

As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught (Avot 1:17), v’lo hamidrash hu haikar ela hama’aseh – it is not the study that is essential but the action itself. USY on Wheels was about living out the guidebooks, the textbooks, the history books. I loved that and I lived that.

And then it dawned on me this week: it was staffing USY on Wheels that prepared me for this deeply important time spent with my children just a few weeks ago. USY on Wheels unexpectedly taught me how to share this country. It taught me how to share our history with my children. It taught me how to share my faith with my children. And it taught me how to stop and smell the Ponderosa Pines.

On one hand, I terribly lament that so many students are missing out on this summer—the students, the counselors. How many will lose out this year—and how many exponentially would have been impacted?  On the other, but for the pandemic, my children likely would have been at summer camp and we would not have taken this trip.

As we sat there in the Black Hills, I could not help but recall the words of Crazy Horse: “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”

I’ve borrowed our country from my children and this summer was about returning it to them—and it is my hope not only will they pay it forward, but they will leave this country and this world in a better place than they’ve found it. And those children who don’t get to experience it with their parent, God-willing, they will find USY on Wheels.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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