Innovation Earns Westport USY International Chapter of the Year

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There are lots of ways to help the homeless or hold a charity event.

But when you look at the innovative ways that Westport USY— affiliated with the Conservative Synagogue of Westport, Connecticut—approaches social action and chapter programming, it’s no surprise that they are the 2017-2018 USY International Chapter of the Year.

“The work our chapter was judged on involved both membership in our chapter, attendance at events, what our events looked like, how they incorporated social action and Tikun Olam, as well as religious education and Israel education,” reports Annie Glasser, who was Youth Director when the award was issued.

Treating Homeless People with Dignity and Respect

“No event attracted more participation than Midnight Run,” according to 17-year-old Ava Glick, Chapter President from 2017 - 2018. Now in its third year, Midnight Run is coordinated with a Dobbs Ferry-based organization of the same name. Their goal is to find common ground between the housed and the homeless.

Westport USY’s Midnight Run is a 6-week endeavor. During that time, the teens collect donations of clothing, blankets, toiletries and more. They also spend time with the synagogue’s rabbi and cantor to study text that is relevant to serving those in need. And they meet with a church leader who helps them understand the importance of this mission from the community’s perspective.

On the day of the event, the teens come together to prepare 100 bagged dinners, then hop on a chartered bus to New York City, along with the Youth Director, clergy and parent chaperones.

Meanwhile, the Midnight Run organization in New York City lets the homeless community know when the teens are coming to town and where they will be.

At 10 pm on a Saturday night, the USY group arrives in Manhattan at the first of four or five street corners, where they will spend the next 3 hours learning and living a lesson in one of Judaism’s great values: helping a neighbor in need.

More than just handing out coats, the teens engage with the city’s homeless. “Would you like this coat or that one?” “Do you want to try this on?”

“It’s all about treating homeless men and women with dignity. They’re part of our community,” says Annie.

Full Court for Kindness: A Successful Interfaith Program Conceived by Teens

When a USYer approached Annie with an idea for a benefit basketball tournament that he and his friend from a local church group wanted to implement, Annie reached out to the youth ministers and leaders of other youth groups in the area.

Explains Annie, “It was initially conceived as sort of a ‘friendly smackdown.’ But when shortly before the first tournament a young person in our neighborhood committed suicide, we decided to use the event as an opportunity to respond. Youth groups from two churches and two synagogues, including the Conservative Synagogue of Westport, signed on. We called it Full Court for Kindness and all the proceeds went to charity.”

Now, the four youth groups come together every year for Full Court for Kindness, a round-robin co-ed basketball tournament that aims to promote acceptance, tolerance and inclusion, while raising money for a common cause. The students from the different groups agree in advance on the causes or organizations they want to support—gun violence prevention, for example. All the money raised in the tournament goes to those causes. Last year the group raised over $1,000.

Like Midnight Run, Full Court for Kindness is unique to the Westport USY chapter.

Connecting with Judaism in Fun and Meaningful Ways

Teenagers choose to be here,” Annie says. “This isn’t Hebrew school or religious services which, for some, are mandatory. We have to make it something they want to be a part of.”

To accomplish this, USYers in Westport have enormous latitude in both creating and designing the chapter’s programs.

“I grew up in Westport USY, so a lot of the teens in our chapter already knew me. I encouraged them to tell me what they envisioned for the chapter. In my role as Youth Director, I helped them make those things happen. I handled the logistics—finding a venue, collecting the money. The kids were the brain power.”

More than a chapter, a community

The story of Westport USY is as much a comeback story as it is a tale of success. A few years ago, Hanefesh—their regional chapter which encompasses Connecticut and Western Massachussets—was experiencing a decline. “Westport USY really brought a lot of energy back to the region,” notes Annie.

Last year, four of the six members elected to the Hanefesh Regional Board were from Westport USY. “We’re only one chapter,” Annie explains. “But we’ve really made a big impact in the region.”

One of the things that both Annie and Ava are most proud of is the community this chapter has built, where USYers are really engaged in their Jewish communal life and have connected with teens from the synagogue they might never have befriended before. “Their care for each other and their commitment to being involved members of the Jewish community are what I find most inspiring,” offers Annie.

As former Chapter President, Ava sums up the chapter’s twofold mission best: “First, we look for people who are looking for Jewish Community. Then we create experiences that will make Westport USY the community they are looking for.”

Westport USY is looking forward to receiving their International Chapter of the Year award at the upcoming International Convention in Orlando, Florida. Held from December 23-27, it’s the largest annual gathering of Conservative Jewish teens—bringing together about 1,000 USYers, as well as USY staff, USY alumni and educators for five days of fun, friendship, celebration and Jewish learning. A record number of teens have registered for this year’s International Convention, more than in the past two years.

Another example of the growing community USYers are building.

View a full list of our 2018 Chapter of Excellence Award Winners and Regional Chapters of the Year here.


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