The Traveling Classroom

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When Hailey Figur and her friends saw Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska as participants on USY on Wheels, Pacific Northwest, everyone decided it was the perfect place and time to pray. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a synagogue in sight.

“You can truly find your Judaism or God anywhere,” Figur, a high-school senior in Atlanta, said in an interview about her experience with USY on Wheels, an immersive North American journey for Jewish teens.

Every summer, hundreds of USYers like Figur take the bus ride (and sometimes cruise) of a lifetime. Middle- and high-school students build bonds with each other, developing their own sense of self and what it means to be a Jew while traveling across North America or along the U.S. coasts. In effect, each bus is a classroom, where discussions introduce new ideas that help open students’ minds, and each place they stop is a laboratory, where they apply what they’ve learned.

Figur and her peers prayed daily and were encouraged to write down their own interpretations, keeping them in their individual prayer books. Shacharit, the morning prayer, was for Figur the most impactful.

“We took a fresh look at prayers we had been saying for so long without knowing exactly what they mean,” she said. Now, she plans to take her prayer book to college.

Half-Century of Road Trips

For more than half a century, USY on Wheels trip have taken teens to dream destinations such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and the Alaskan wilderness. A favorite stop for Abby Elson, a junior from Maryland, who participated in “Classic” USY on Wheels, was Crater Lake National Park in Southern Oregon. It was there that a friend began singing B’Shem Hashem, or “The Angel Song.”

“One by one, all of us joined in,” Elson said in an interview, expressing how moving the moment was as the sound of their voices echoed across the lake. “When I was walking back to the bus, this man stopped me and asked what song it was. It turned out he was Jewish and it was the song his father sang to him every night before bed. When his father died, he lost his connection to the religion. Hearing us made him want to reconnect.”

This was the moment Elson realized her group’s travels and interactions could impact not only themselves. With social action and community service components as well, USY on Wheels trips deliver much more than sightseeing.

“We are showing our teens that the world is bigger than their hometowns,” said Michelle Rich, USY director of teen travel at USCJ. “For most of the kids, it is a life-changing experience.”

The trips are open to students in grades 7-12. Three 45-day “Classic” buses make their way from New Jersey to California and back again, stopping throughout the U.S. and Canada. The Wheels East and West trips, the only options for 7th- and 8th-graders, last four weeks and explore the coasts. A fourth option, Wheels Pacific Northwest, includes a cruise to Alaska.

The teens are encouraged to provide insight into which forms of tzedakah, or charity, they prefer to get involved with while on the road. Past projects included supporting an organization that provides birthday parties for underprivileged kids in Dallas; helping out at a soup kitchen and food distribution center in Chicago; and providing a practice audience for deaf theater students in Los Angeles.

“We are not only seeing the country; we are giving back to it,” said “Classic” trip leader Josh Ull, who also is a former USY regional and international president.

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Trips also can help establish participants’ Jewish identity, as they are often immersed in experiences that strengthen their understanding of Judaism and how they can live a Jewish lifestyle. Such lessons take place both while chewing up miles on the bus and during stops at synagogues to engage with rabbis and congregations.

A visit to a synagogue in a small South Dakota town that formerly had a thriving Jewish community illustrated that point to one USY on Wheels group. The stop inspired the Jews who still lived there to bring out their scrapbooks of memories from fellowship activities to share with the teens, and the visit even led to a news article in the local newspaper.

Elson was particularly struck by Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee. When educators there realized students were having a hard time conceptualizing how many people were killed during the Holocaust, they began collecting paper clips to represent each life. The project led to a huge effort that culminated in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, which includes a rail car that was used to carry Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“What surprised and impressed me the most,” said Elson, “was that this town in Tennessee had just one Jewish resident in a total population of 1,500.” She couldn’t believe people who might not have had a familial connection would make telling the story such a priority.

Learning Life Skills

Throughout the summer, the students celebrate Shabbat together. Everyone keeps kosher and learns the important life skill of how to do so, even on the road.

“Our kids learn that if you want to keep kosher and you live in a place where there may not be a large Jewish population, you have to read the labels,” said Rich, adding that group leaders help the teens identify the variety of descriptive marks on packaged foods that relate to Jewish dietary laws.

Participants also discover new ways to pray through art and yoga, and what Judaism says about being a considerate house guest. While they usually sleep at hotels, sometimes the teens stay with local Jewish families.

Other life skills, such as responsibility, also become a priority.

On the road, the teens do their own laundry. When Elson’s group of 32 rolled up to a laundromat in a very small Texas town, the owner was surprised to see them.

“She put us all over social media and gave us a recommendation of where to get the best ice cream,” said Elson. This was a welcome opportunity, as she and her friends were on a mission to find the best ice cream in the country.

Becoming an Adult

Shawn Konichowsky, a teen from New Jersey, got a very important lesson the first day of his Wheels East trip when, after a tour of Boston, he realized he no longer had his wallet.

“I was freaking out,” Konichowsky said in an interview. Thankfully, the wallet and its contents were found intact, but for Konichowsky, it still was a humbling experience.

“I learned not only to pack a little more carefully, but also be a little more mindful of what I am doing,” he said.

Indeed, traveling isn’t always easy and usually includes obstacles. Elson, though, said she “loved every second of being on the road.”

“I loved going to bed every night reflecting on the amazing experiences I had that day and looking forward to the next,” she said. “I woke up every morning with this feeling of adventure.”

Here’s to making Judaism the adventure of a lifetime.

Click here for more information on USY on Wheels trips.


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