“We were in Poland at a mass grave for eight-hundred children,” Yonit recalls. “We wrote down [examples of] people’s hopes and dreams and put them in a hat. Then we ripped them up. These were the lost hopes and dreams of children who were killed in the Holocaust.
“I only cried once on JOLT,” she says, “and this is when I cried.”
Yonit, 16, a junior at St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota, spent five weeks this summer on JOLT, NCSY’s summer leadership program for outstanding teens. On JOLT, teens explore their rich Jewish past in Poland, help run a camp for non-affiliated Jewish children in Austria, and tour Israel where they reflect on their experiences and uncover what it means to be a true Jewish leader.
For Yonit, taking on a leadership role in a Jewish day camp in Austria was the perfect anecdote to the death and destruction she witnessed in Poland.
“What we were able to do at JSummer was provide these kids with a positive Jewish experience, something that none of them [would even dream of] at home, and something that we in America often take for granted.”
Israel, too, was an “amazing” experience for Yonit, who says, “Shabbos in Yerushalayim was the best time ever.”
Yonit adds that the atmosphere on JOLT is one of inspiration and growth, and not just because of the places she visited.
“The people who were on JOLT, and the attitude and commitment to learning they brought with them, made JOLT so impactful,” she says.
The trip also includes a focus on building leadership skills. But Yonit says some of the strongest lessons she learned were the ones left unsaid.
“In Austria, being a leader wasn’t about being the loudest in the room,” she explains. “It was about making sure you represent what a leader is, in the way you act and the [behavior] you model for others. By the end of the trip, you realize you [uncovered] leadership skills you didn’t know you had.”
Yonit, a long-time NCSYer, says JOLT gave her one more important thing: the inspiration to “prioritize” her Judaism.
“Until now, it was hard for me to prioritize anything but school… but when you hear what people did during the Holocaust to keep one last Shabbos, it makes you think, ‘Why should I be on my cell phone on Shabbos?’” she says. “The whole program made me realize that I need to make time to maintain my relationships and learn with my advisors.”
And so this Sukkot, when Yonit once again stays home from school despite the fact that many of her classmates won’t, she says it will be about more than because she is Jewish.
“It’ll be me prioritizing my Judaism,” she says. “It’ll be me actively saying [being Jewish] is who I am.”
Captions: (Top) Yonit, left, with a JOLT friend in front of the Austrian Alps. (Middle) Yonit, second from left, with JSummer campers before Shabbos in Niederau, Austria. (Bottom) Yonit, right, learning about women in Jew history with a JSummer camper.