It was Passover 2010. I was a freshman at the University of Central Florida. I had just experienced the most free seder of my life. I admitted to myself that I had made a mistake. I didn’t belong at UCF, I belonged in Israel. The following day my hand was shaking as I dialed my NCSY mentor that, 8 months ago, I told him that I had decided to not do a gap year in Israel. We hadn’t spoken since.
“Hi Rabbi….it’s Jennifer Freiman…” I said.
“JENNIFER FREIMAN! WOW! Hello! It is SO nice to hear from you! Happy Passover! How are you doing?!” He replied excitedly.
I got straight to the point. I should have gone to Israel. It took a couple of months and a seder where almost everyone around me talked over the campus Rabbi to finally push me to come to the realization that I was in the wrong place. If I wanted to grow spiritually and religiously, I needed to be in a different environment. Israel was the place for me and I asked him if he could help get me to Israel.
After a few moments he responded “Wow. Jennifer. Do you know what would have happened if Hashem never ended slavery for the Jews?” I rattled off a few speculative answers then he said, “At some point, either society or a new cause would arise and the Jews would probably just get to walk away. But, they wouldn’t have gotten what Hashem had given them when they left, which was in addition to physical freedom, was also spiritual and inner freedom. Jennifer, you are right now tapping into that inner freedom.”
That was a defining moment of my life.
After all the meaningful experiences I had as a teen in NCSY, I finally was taking it to the next level. ‘Freedom being within’ became my motto, and no matter how many people told me I was running away from my problems and making a mistake by leaving UCF, I knew they were wrong and I went full speed ahead to Israel for my sophomore year.
Fast forward to today as an NCSY staff member and getting the opportunity to pass over that same message that was given to me by my mentor. And right as the pandemic was beginning, I was a part of a staff meeting to brainstorm how to provide our services virtually for the 4000+ teens in our region.
“We thrive on relationship building, we can’t only do events for huge groups of kids!” one of the city directors exclaimed, “We need to keep doing our Jewish Student Union clubs”, “we need to think out of the box, what about incentives”, “who can be the best guest speakers that can also attract the kids that aren’t constantly involved??” The discussion between directors was passionate, a bit frustrating, but exciting.
We knew we had to work hard to build on the relationships we made with the teens. We knew we had to work to make sure they were staying inspired, not just entertained. We knew we had to work to ensure that when they reached an age where they could make decisions for themselves that they realized their freedom is within – that they have the ability to reach deep within to the depths of their Jewish souls.
It was a few meetings later that we realized that this was a unique opportunity that we may not have again for a very long time! Teens can have the chance to showcase their talents, we can enlist the help of celebrities to increase engagement, parents can be involved like they never have before, we can collaborate with partner organizations, etc. Having to create virtual events pushed us out of our comfort zone. From the planning stage we started to get into the groove of putting out events that had different flavors that could utilize all of the opportunities above. Teens ran challah bakes, world-renowned artist Romero Britto ran an art workshop for us, parents tuned in to musical Havdalah, and flyers were shared that other organizations were hosting. In the first week alone national NCSY organized 154 events with 1,779 participants!
Matthew, a junior in high school reflected about in-person NCSY vs. virtual NCSY. “Although every normal week we have a latte and learn program and we can call our advisors at any time of the day we don’t always feel satisfied and crave more. Now with Virtual NCSY you can satisfy your craving for more growth and learning. Everyday there is something to do, whether it’s a class or an art event with a famous artist you will never be bored.” Matthew continued “My connection to Judaism started through talking to my advisors and being active in Jewish learning. So to be able to have learning with NCSY virtually for most the day has helped me grow even more. I began to buy more Jewish books and read more and I’m learning more about what it means to be Jewish.”
Personally, one of my first JSU events I ran virtually also lasted much longer than a typical in-school club and in addition to that, we were getting into topics I could never really have the time to explore in person as well. Although this whole pandemic has completely flipped the world upside down, I’m grateful to be working with an organization that is still providing experiences for teens that will not just give them nice Jewish experiences during this time period, but will also empower and inspire them for life.