[The below article is featured in “Praying With Our Legs: 19 Stories That Will Inspire You,” a Jewish Social Justice Roundtable publication]
Just starting her first year at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Leah Shefsky flashes back to the start of an earlier phase of her life, high school.
After nine years of conservative Jewish Day School in Evanston, Ill., Shefsky was disengaged from Judaism and eager to start school at her local public high school.
“I wanted something with more meaning,” said Shefsky. “I was looking for some way to actively continue my Judaism, but wasn’t interested in just a youth group. Then, I found a way into my Judaism through making the world a better place,” she said.
That “way” was Or Tzedek, a program of Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), which introduced Shefsky and other young people to ways they could make change in their community.
The group would study an issue, do a service project and learn about various methods for creating change. Every time the group took action on new issues, said Shefsky, she was surprisingly affected.
“I started caring a lot about all the issues we discussed. Immigration is so central in the history of Jews, and we started to learn about immigration reform. We went to an interfaith vigil that’s held weekly at a detention center. It is where people are bused before being deported. Standing next to family members crying was so powerful. No matter where you stand on immigration issues, it’s impossible not to feel something. It’s much more real when you’re there and seeing the faces,” said Shefsky.
Now that Shefsky has had experiences building relationships, providing service and advocating, she can no longer “sit back and pretend like nothing is going on.”
Only beginning her college career, she is already getting involved and breaking down barriers.
“People talk about the ‘Beloit bubble’ and the disconnection between students and the community,” said Shefsky.
“I want to become engaged in the community,” she said.
A member of the Peace and Justice Club, she volunteers at a “community-based organization that is five blocks from campus and is very low income.”
Once again at a place of transition, Shefsky is seeking out something like what she found at JCUA, where she can be fully Jewish and fully present in the larger Beloit community.
“There’s only a small Hillel group, but I’m figuring out my own rides to synagogue in town,” she said.