At the end of December I had the opportunity to attend my fourth consecutive USY (United Synagogue Youth) International Convention.  This year USY celebrated its 64th International Convention in Atlanta, GA.

The convention gives USYers from across the country an opportunity to reunite with their friends from summer programs, past convention, and even overnight camps. It allows teens to strengthen their current friendships, while creating new ones that will last a life time. This year with over 700 attendees from all over the United States and Canada, the convention was filled with endless ruach (spirit) and energy; however, it was a completely new experience for me, as I was fortunate to have been chosen as one of the two co-chairs.

Shayna Plotnik proudly displays her region's sign in the convention hall

I have been actively involved with USY since my freshman year of high school (I am currently a freshman at Indiana University) and am proud to have been a member of the New England region, NERUSY. Throughout my time I was very involved in my chapter, Framingham USY, as well as regionally, where senior year of high school I was elected to the NERUSY Regional Executive Board. I also attended two incredible USY summer programs, USY’s Poland/Israel Pilgrimage in 2013 and USY’s first ever Mission to Cuba in 2014.

During my time as a USYer, I attended International Convention’s in Philadelphia, Boston and New Orleans, each one leaving everlasting memories. Experiencing the passion that past co-chairs had and how they created their conventions always with the USYers in mind is truly what inspired me to apply for the position. It gave me the opportunity to give back to the organization that has given me so much.

Co-chairing the convention was by far one of the best experiences in my USY career. Taking a convention that is the highlight of many USYers year and making it bigger and better than the year before is certainly a challenging task, but it could not be any more rewarding. We started planning back in February and worked endlessly, scheduling and programing during the many months leading up to convention. I could not wait to see all USYers filling the halls and rooms of the Omni Hotel. When all 44 delegates of my home region ran into the ballroom for opening session, it was a surreal feeling, as I saw the convention that had been in my head for almost a year, finally come to life.

Each year the convention is five days long filled with non-stop programming and educational sessions. We took it to new heights this year, creating a jam packed schedule filled with our version of the Georgia State Fair, a community-wide Hanukkah Concert featuring Joshua Nelson, the Prince of Kosher Gospel, a dance and exclusive access to the World of Coca-Cola, and USY’s first ever Film Festival, featuring films made by our very own USYers. We also held creative Shacharit to give everyone a chance to pray the way that feels right for them.

USY International Convention co-chairs Ori Brian (far left) and Shayna Plotnik (far right) pose at the World of Coca Cola with convention director Lisa Alter Krule (center); Photo credit: Ethan Weg

One of the most important aspects to each and every convention is our educational theme, which this year was Ve’ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.  We gave the educational theme a new twist, as we created our first ever Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel Day, giving USYers the opportunity to explore and learn about the civil rights movement, as well as volunteer in the Atlanta area.

Rabbi Heschel was a Jewish Civil rights activist who spent time marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Much of his teachings parallel Dr. King’s, showing USYers how important Tikun Olam (repairing the world) and treating everyone fairly is, and how this does not only apply to us as Jews, but to the entire world.

I spent the day with NERUSY volunteering at Books for Africa. This organization is a local charity that strives to “end the book famine in Africa.” They take donated books and sort them in to categories, to later be sent to African countries to help educate people of all ages. We spent all morning sorting books and preparing them to be sent out. There was every type of book you could imagine; from children’s books, through college level textbooks. Spending the morning volunteering with NERUSY meant so much to me, as not only could I work besides some of my closest friends, but I got to see on a more personal level, the connection that my region created with this project and how much they enjoyed working together to help others.

NERUSY teens sort and organize books to send to Africa at local Atlanta charity

Following our morning of service, we met up with the rest of the convention at the New Ebenezer Church for our Heschel Society induction ceremonies (recognizing those who are committed and active members of the Jewish community) where we began by singing some of our favorite ruach songs and celebrating the new inductees. We were then honored to listen to our keynote speaker, Reverend Graham Williams, as he shared his own story about his life during the civil rights movement and marching alongside Dr. King. While he spoke, you could hear a pin drop.

The church happens to be located right on the block where Dr. King grew up and following the ceremony we were given a tour of its historical sights and educated about his life. My favorite moment of this tour was when we went to the old Ebenezer Church, which has not been changed since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. As we sat in the pews and his voice came out from the speakers, it was unbelievable how much you could feel his presence in that room and it was absolutely breathtaking.

Looking back I could not be more proud of how this convention turned out. USYers have told me just how impactful this convention was for them and that they are so happy they attended. It was such a humbling moment when I was running the freshman program to see each new USYer’s excitement about everything that happened that week. Whether it was the official music video, the multiple matching outfits I wore with my co-chair, an educational program, or even just the time they got to spend together, the pure happiness that the convention provided for each and every USYer really shone through. I would encourage every USYer to attend an International Convention, because it will change their lives for the better, just as it has changed mine. It was an amazing week, and I can honestly say that it was truly, the best week of my life!