Growing up in a family that celebrated Christmas and Chanukah was both exciting and disheartening. On the one hand, I got double the presents. On the other, I had to see that my mother's heritage was not celebrated as fully as my father's. At a young age, this made me angry and a little bit scared. I wondered why I was different than most of my friends and neighbors; why were there Christmas lights everywhere, but never Chanukah lights?
In the beginning of third grade, I moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Abington, Pa., and started Hebrew school at Temple Beth Am. Although it was great to learn about the Jewish people, including their rich history — and their ability to survive and flourish in the face of enslavement and discrimination — I still felt this wasn't entirely my story. I knew that I was only "half-Jewish," and I corrected everyone who thought otherwise. I continued my Jewish education and became a Bar Mitzvah, but I still did not feel the connection to Judaism that so many of my friends felt.
To be honest, after my Bar Mitzvah, I was tired. I stopped attending Hebrew school and told my parents that I wanted to become a Buddhist. And for about a year, I turned my back on Judaism.
Then, while celebrating a holiday at my grandmother's house in New York, my family decided to look through an old trunk belonging to my great grandfather, Isidore Feder. In the process of sorting through the mementos of his years of service as a lieutenant colonel in charge of a mobile hospital unit during World War II, I discovered a personal connection to Judaism that had eluded me for so long.
The contents of the trunk meticulously documented his heroic efforts to prevent an outbreak of tuberculosis among survivors of Hitler's genocide in the Buchenwald concentration camp — efforts that earned him a bronze star. Preserved in the trunk were thousands of letters to his wife, my great-grandmother, which beautifully portrayed his experiences as one of the first people to witness firsthand the atrocities of the Nazis. His collection of artifacts and writings came into my possession about a year ago, and I have since catalogued and explored this fascinating yet haunting window into my family's past.
My great-grandfather inspired me to reclaim my Jewish identity. From the very moment that I opened that trunk, I have never again considered myself to be "half-Jewish." I embraced my past and realize now that I am a whole Jew.
My Jewish journey continued with a three-week trip to Israel in the summer of 2006.
From the moment I arrived, I felt as if I had come home. To be in a Jewish state was the most comforting feeling I had ever known. No longer did the Christmas lights outshine the glow of the menorah. Here, Jewish life flourished, and I was free to take part. When I arrived back in the United States, I looked for a way to become active in the Jewish community, and that's when I heard of a relatively new program known as the Satell Teen Fellowship.
Based at the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, the Satell Teen Fellowship teaches social activism and leadership to the next generation of Jewish leaders. I was one of 21 teens accepted for this unique opportunity to explore and engage in the workings of the Jewish community. We learned early on that this program was not a theoretical approach to activism; we were expected to make our mark before the year was up. Each of us had to create a commitment statement, identifying something we wanted to improve in our community, and take action.
Initially, I came up with a few ideas for projects that all revolved around the Jewish community. However, my Satell experience opened my eyes to injustices committed against not only the Jewish people, but to non-Jews as well. I learned that, by helping to save the world, I was upholding Jewish ideals and protecting my people. As a Jew whose great-grandfather witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust, I felt compelled to help end the genocide in the Darfur regions of the Sudan.
A friend of mine and I began a small campaign at my school. We resolved to raise awareness of this abhorrent situation by collecting 1,000 pairs of flip-flops to send to the refugees who were forced to flee their homes and traverse the desert with only the clothes on their back, and often barefoot. Never in our wildest dreams could we have foreseen the generosity demonstrated by school staff, students and neighbors. In just three weeks, we collected and sent 1,256 pairs of shoes, 250 articles of clothing, 16 soccer balls and a cash donation of $1,800.
Without the leadership and activist skills I acquired from Satell workshops, I probably never would have thought to do something like this.
In evaluating the success of this small-scale school project, I realize that my work on behalf of Darfur has only just begun. We not only collected material goods during the campaign, but also got people talking about what was happening right now in Darfur and what they could do about it.
Many people have the means to educate and inspire others. My experience as a Satell Teen Fellow has taught me what it takes to change the world. If my actions have led even one more person to take up arms and fight against injustice, then I know that my life will have had a purpose.
Many people are discouraged to act because they feel that one person can't possibly make a difference in this big world. Well, I'm here to say you can. All it takes is one person doing the right thing to inspire another, and then another. And before long, we will be able to live in a world that truly knows peace.
James McDonald, 16, is a junior at Abington Senior High School.
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The Satell Teen Fellowship, funded by the Satell Family Foundation, is a select, 10-month program for motivated 11th- and 12th-grade high school students from across the Philadelphia area to develop effective leaders for the future to live positive lives and influence the community in a meaningful way. Satell Teen Fellows have the opportunity to meet influential business, political and community leaders; travel to Washington, D.C., and Israel; and hone their leadership skills, such as public speaking and networking. Upon graduation from the program, Satell Teen Fellows should be equipped to face social issues and make a global impact. Registration for the 2007-08 program closes soon. To apply, call program director Beth Margolis Rupp at 215-635-7300, Ext. 128; or e-mail: [email protected]