Guest Op Ed: Social Action in the Life of a Jewish Teen

The following article (originally printed in Congregation Beth Judea’s Dec. 2012 issue of “The Word”) was written by Or Tzedek summer 2012 participant Joel Spiegel. Joel is a junior at Stevenson and the Beth Judea USY Social Action and Tikkun Olam Vice President.
In the following post, Joel discusses the importance of taking action as a teenager and issues a call to action for Chicagoland youth leaders to take part in creating social justice. He writes, “To my generation: in a few years we will dominate the economy, and the political scene. We need to start tackling the issues of tomorrow, today. We must ask ourselves, if not now, when?”
Make a change in your city and join Joel at Or Tzedek’s Winter Leadership Retreat. Register online today! Registration for the Winter Leadership Retreat has been extended to Monday, December 17, 2012. 
Or Tzedekers Vered and Joel (right) canvassing.

Or Tzedekers Vered and Joel (right) canvassing.

Ever since I can remember, I have been passionate about social issues in my world. Unfortunately, for the first 3 or 4 years of my adolescence, I had no direction to channel this passion. This would change one day when a spunky teen program coordinator from an organization in the city called the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs named Rebecca came to give a presentation to us during USY for a Social Action summer program called Or Tzedek.

While I munched away at my carrots and hummus, my ears perked up when she said the phrase, “if not now, when?” This question hit me particularly hard because that was the exact question I had been avoiding for years. I had been putting off the social issues that I knew needed to be addressed. This was the moment when I knew that I needed to start taking action to improve this great world we all live in.

This inspired me to sign up for Or Tzedek’s July program, and it proved to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Knowing no one, I went to the first day pretty nervous, but I was welcomed with open arms. As my co-Or Tzedekers and I went through those incredible 8 days, we all became incredibly close while we faced the incredible adversity that challenges our communities.

David and Joel

Joel (left) and David during Or Tzedek’s summer session

My Judaism came into everything we did during those 8 days. My classmates and I in Hebrew school would often question why we needed to learn things that seem so distant to us. Judaism seemed like an ancient religion that had no relevance in today’s world. My experiences with Or Tzedek taught me that Judaism has a lot of importance in the way we approach the impossible-seeming discrepancies in today’s society.

While I found a way to channel that passion this summer, I also found my Judaism. My Judaism is an unorthodox kind, but it involves going out and changing my world, an approach to the religion that is seldom taken. In our ever-changing world, I deeply believe that as a Jewish community, we must stop putting social action off.

Specifically as a teen I have found a big place for social action and Judaism in my life. I have been fortunate enough to be very involved in youth group, and be the Social Action/ Tikkun Olam chair of USY executive board. Tikkun Olam means repairing our world in Hebrew, and it’s a phrase that I take to heart. It is wrong to say that teens today are lazy and unmotivated. The truth is that many teens feel disconnected from the realm of social justice.

Many of us feel like politicians are people of our parents’ generation, and we don’t have any say in the world that we will inherit. There’s a boatload of problems that we will inherit from our parents’ generation of two-faced politics and a bickering government. These issues laid forth for us tend to make teens discouraged with thoughts like: what can I do? I’m just a teenager.

Or Tzedek canvassing in Highwood

Or Tzedek canvassing in Highwood

Instead, as an age cohort, we need to take responsibility for our futures and face these issues. There are ways to be involved in issues whether you are 18 or not. One of the most empowering things I did in the past year was canvass, or door to door knock, for voter registration. Helping people use their voice made me feel like I’m doing something that will positively impact my future as a Jew and as a teen.

This article wasn’t written for me to boast about all of the things I do. I’m guessing if you have gotten this far in the paper you will have realized this. My purpose instead is to motivate others. Yes I’m 17 and do not have a formal vote in political elections, but there are so many other ways to get involved. Read an article, donate a buck, phone bank for a politician that supports your beliefs, or canvass with an organization.

To my generation: in a few years we will dominate the economy, and the political scene. We need to start tackling the issues of tomorrow, today. We must ask ourselves, if not now, when?

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