Finding My Place
If I had to describe the State of Colorado and the City of Denver in one word, I would choose “unique.” Unique because we have over 300 days of sunshine a year, unique because we are a mile above sea level, unique because we were the first to legalize marijuana. Coloradoans have a unique mindset, and approach life in their own way, on their own terms. Denver also has a very unique Jewish community – it is smaller than one would expect for such a large city, yet it is thriving. Our unique Jewish community trickles all the way down to our youth groups. Not all of the major youth movements are represented in Denver, and many of the youth groups are synagogue based - so they draw their membership base primarily from one source - their own congregations.
When the second half of 8th grade arrived, I was faced with what my 13-year old self believed was the most important decision I would ever have to make in my entire life. I had to choose a youth group to join. Even though Denver has fewer options than most cities, I was still overwhelmed by my choices. Would I choose to join the youth group at my synagogue even though it was unaffiliated with a national organization? Would I join a group at another synagogue even if they prayed differently than I did? Or would I join a city wide group, one that belonged nowhere yet everywhere?
After many hours spent agonizing over what to do and weighing the pros and cons of each option, it was time to choose. Ultimately, I chose to join a Denver-wide group that was unaffiliated with any synagogue, and I found my new home in BBYO. There were five chapters to choose from and I joined 201, a chapter of girls who welcomed me in with open arms. I fell in love with an organization that held the possibility for leadership opportunities, unique experiences, and lifelong Jewish friends. I learned the lingo, made friends, and felt like I truly belonged.
Despite all the fears that come with being a freshman in a high school with 4,000 students, BBYO was always there to boost my confidence. I was elected to my chapter board, and I began to try and give to others what BBYO had given to me – a place to call home. I thought that BBYO was perfect, and that nothing needed to change.
That was all before I changed. The summer before my junior year I went to Israel with NCSY, an Orthodox affiliated youth group, and came back with a changed perspective on the religion I grew up with. I had spent the summer keeping Shabbat, learning and davening (praying) three times a day, and I had fallen in love with all that Judaism could offer me. Yet I was still committed to my BBYO chapter and friends. Then, I went to the fall regional BBYO convention, and I was shocked – the services that I once loved now seemed uninteresting and un-inclusive. Celebrating Shabbat was not as special as it once had been, and I did not believe I was the only person who felt this way. BBYO prides itself on being a pluralistic youth group, and I decided to set out to make sure that was true in Denver.
In the months after I went to Israel, I tried to make changes within both my BBYO chapter and within the region as a whole. I tried to make BBYO more inclusive for different denominations. I tried to show other BBYO members that there was more than one way to pray, that it was possible to be pluralistic and welcoming to everyone without losing the fun aspects that are a crucial part of the organization. I hoped that BBYO would still be able to be the home it once was for me, that I would still be able to feel as much a part of it even though my feelings about how I wanted to approach my Judaism had changed. I wanted to believe that I could make a difference, that I could help make BBYO a place where Denver youth could participate, no matter what denomination or synagogue they belonged to. I wanted to believe that BBYO could be as inclusive as everyone said it could be.
I tried to create these changes, but after a few months I came to realize that it wasn’t possible, no matter how hard I tried. It seemed that almost all of the other BBYO members in my region were content with the way things were. The change I sought wasn’t going to happen in a way that would make me happy. Even though BBYO had been my home for so long, I ultimately had to accept that it just wasn’t the place for me anymore. I would have to find a different youth experience that might make me happy. I began to look for alternatives, different places where I could express my Jewish Identity. I was reliving the same crisis that had left my 8th grade self in tears – what youth group could I join? I knew I was asking a lot – I was looking for a group that would allow me to practice as I wanted, that would give me the opportunity to learn and ask as many questions as I desired, and that would introduce me to incredible people with whom I would develop deep and meaningful relationships. My own synagogue youth group was welcoming, but was not special for me. Again, I was back to where I was in 8th grade … or worse. I knew that it didn’t matter which youth group I was involved with, but what mattered was that I was involved with a group that enabled me to become the Jewish adult I wanted to be. In the end, it hit me with as much force as my trip to Israel did. The same group that created this problem would be the one to fix it, NCSY.
I dove head first into NCSY, and when I attended the NCSY National Convention I found what I had been looking for – the spark of magic that first welcomed me into BBYO, the feeling that I had found a place where I was loved and where I was supposed to be. The week I spent at the NCSY convention changed something inside me and made everything incredibly clear – this was where I was supposed to be as a Jewish teen. This youth group would be where my unique Jewish identity could continue. A few weeks later, I was able to say that the first Denver NCSY event had been a success. Other Denver teens were searching for the same thing I was, and we had finally found it. NCSY gave us the opportunity to practice Judaism as we wanted to, to ask all the questions we had, and to decide for ourselves how we wanted to live our Jewish lives. NCSY had a lot of what I was missing when I was in BBYO, while still providing me with the sense of community that BBYO helped to create for me.
Since this spark, I have helped to grow and improve the new NCSY chapter here in Denver. We have worked hard to make the program known to Denver youth who are looking for something different, something that can inspire them to find their place in Judaism, a home for their Jewish identity. While it was even more difficult to decide to step back from BBYO than it was to join it, the decision is one that taught me the importance of listening to myself, and doing what I believe to be right. It is never easy to go against everything you know to try something new – no matter how much of a Coloradoan you are.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Cantor, Gabrielle. "Finding My Place." 20 April 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/finding-my-place>.