In Their Own Words

Posted on October 31, 2023

Charlie Cohen (r.), 16, a sophomore at Marquette High School in St. Louis, MO, is a Shabbaton “regular.” And he says this Shabbaton was different – in an extraordinary way.

“The whole energy of the place felt special, like we were seeing family members we hadn’t seen in months, reuniting and connecting,” he says.

Charlie adds that the Shabbaton’s theme – of the greatness of the individual and of the Jewish people as a whole – resonated deeply,

“The idea of being ‘great’ is so abstract, but it’s something we all strive for,” he says. “And to discuss it in such a high-level way was something I didn’t even know I needed, but it helped guide my direction in life.”

What was Charlie’s biggest takeaway?

“There is a place in the world where baseless love exists, and I am fortunate enough to be part of it,” Charlie says. “I will move through the world with a bit more hope.”

For Kira Wittlin (l.), 14, a freshman at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, IL, there wasn’t one specific “thing” she found inspiring at the Shabbaton, but rather the overall emphasis on connection to Israel.

Kira points to all the Israel-related activities she participated in, from praying for soldiers and writing letters to them, to doing acts of kindness as a merit for their safety, including volunteering at the Chicago Chesed Fund warehouse.

“What inspired me most,” she says, “[is] the idea of the importance of helping Israel and how we can achieve that as American Jews.”

Kira adds that she left the Shabbaton feeling empowered to make a difference.

“A huge takeaway from the Shabbaton was learning how each individual can do their part to help, with even the smallest things,” she says.

Ethan Vanderwalde (r.), 15, a sophomore at Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, TN, described the Shabbaton as having a unique “sense of unity and togetherness.”

He says the highlight was the educational sessions, which he describes as “really meaningful.”

“The session about standing up to peer pressure was the most inspiring for me,” he says. “We spoke a lot about doing what you know is right, and having a set of values that transcends what is occurring in a certain situation.”

At the Shabbaton, the teens were encouraged to work on a Jewish value in their everyday lives as a merit for those in Israel.

“I decided to make Ma’ariv [evening prayers] my ‘thing,’” says Ethan, “allowing myself to grow spiritually in the merit of all the soldiers, hostages, and citizens of Israel who are going through this terrible experience.”