This Sunday, September 18th, 2011, United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative Movement’s youth group began its sixtieth anniversary celebrations, by honoring its longterm director, Jules Gutin. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to New Jersey to be a part of this wonderful tribute, but I will certainly be there in spirit. I know that I will not be the only one there in spirit because I am just one of the tens of thousands that has been impacted by Jules Gutin. As a USYer, and later as a staff member, Jules opened up an entryway to Judaism that I didn’t know existed. Jules, along with so many other USY staff members and peers, helped me fall in love with Judaism. Jules empowered me to learn, to do, to experience, and encouraged me to question. His influence also led me to become a rabbi. As he concludes his over twenty years as director, and goes on to new opportunities to shape the future of the Conservative Movement, we can truly honor Jules Gutin by ensuring the future success of USY!
The Conservative Movement offers youth groups for students in grades 6-12 (USY and Kadima.) Additionally, at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, our Chalutzim youth group introduces our children to Jewish youth group experiences beginning in the fourth grade. From conventions, and shabbatonim, to USY on Wheels, USY Pilgrimage, and Nativ, United Synagogue Youth does a phenomenal job of giving our children positive Jewish experiences. Yet, only roughly 10% of Jewish teenagers affiliated with Conservative synagogues are members of USY or Kadima. The vast majority of teenagers affiliated with Conservative synagogues choose to not participate in USY or Camp Ramah. I too did not want to participate in USY. My parents encouraged me to get involved– maybe even initially forcing me to do so — and I was quickly hooked.
I still remember the opening words of an election speech I gave when I was in USY:
It is out there and it is going to get you. When it does you will never know what hit you. You have no control over it. But it will take over your life. And you will LOVE EVERY SECOND OF IT. This “thing” that I am talking about that takes over all of our lives is U S Y. All you need is one moment, one experience, one little spark, and you are hooked. It may be losing your voice during a Ruach session, dancing for 15 minutes to a nigoon during Kabbalat Shabbat services. It may be experiencing Israel through the eyes of USY, be it floating in the Dead Sea with Pilgrimage or having a snowball fight in the Golan Heights on USY’s HeChalutzim Seminar. It may be davening at the Grand Canyon on USY on WHEELS, or it may be that the person who was sleeping above you in your bunk at your Freshman encampment is now your best friend. Any of these experiences could do it. And all of them did it for me.
These are the reasons that so many of us were involved in USY. These are the reasons that we must ensure that our children are involved in USY as well. At the 2009 USY International Convention in Chicago, Jules Gutin challenged the USY delegation: “Most people focus on improving the quality of our programs,” he said. “Yet, if we do not increase our quantity, then quality will not really matter.” So get involved in USY, Kadima, and Chalutzim. Get your friends involved in these great programs. Make sure that your children participate. I guarantee that your children will thank you for pushing them to get involved. They will greatly benefit as a result of their USY experiences and the Conservative movement will be better off because of their involvement. Together we can make the future of the Conservative movement even brighter!