From CTeen to Jerusalem

2 months ago Leighest 0

Netanel Ashkenazi, San Antonio, TX

Waking up every  morning for the past four years to get ready for school was a heavy burden. Every day that I knew I was not attending a Jewish high school, but rather the secular high school in San Antonio, Texas where I was a student, made me feel lost. I graduated from eighth grade knowing that it would be the end of my Jewish education for that time; I was saddened and at a loss. I knew I would not go on to study Chumash, Navi, Gemara, or even pray at school, which I had been used to. But, most of all, I was sad to no longer be in the Jewish environment and with my Jewish friends that I was so connected to. Not only that, but I was about to attend a school where I would be the only Jew in my class. I knew that it would be up to me, in my own free time, to keep my Jewish spark alive.

On the first day of my freshman year of high school, as I reflected on all of the amazing values that EKA, my Jewish middle school, had instilled in me, I decided to take it upon myself to wear a kippah and tzitzit to school every day.

One of the most shocking changes that took me time to get used to was how confused my classmates were by Judaism. One day, during my pre-AP Biology class, as my teacher was beginning the lesson, a girl raised her hand, and totally off topic, interrupted the class to turn around and asking me a question about marrying Jewish! “Is it true that you’re only allowed to date or marry Jewish women?” The whole class was silent. Even my teacher was curious to hear how I would answer, and paused her lesson. All eyes were on me; everyone’s heads were turned in my direction. In that moment, I thought about all of the commitments I had made before starting high school, which were to only date Jewish girls, keep kosher, attend shul on Shabbat, continue praying everyday, and to never stop speaking Hebrew. All of those decisions helped me clearly and boldly explain the laws of marrying Jewish to my class. Their next question came immediately: “So, what will you do?” I proudly told them that I would only date and marry a Jewish girl. Before I knew it, the entire school learned of the ‘Marrying Jewish’ discussion from biology class; soon enough, the whole school knew that I intended to keep to that halacha, or law. I was proud of myself, and felt good about my decisions.

To be honest, as time went by, it started to get harder to keep the things I had intended.

School was good: I joined the soccer team and the tennis team, I had really good grades, and I made lots of new friends. Trying to retain my level of observance while being the only Jew in my school was hard. Suddenly, keeping kosher was hard; I felt tempted to eat all of the delicious-looking candy and sweets that everyone always brought to school. Turning down food and snacks that were made and bought for my birthday was really embarrassing. I stopped speaking Hebrew as much, and it became difficult to maintain the same level of reading and writing I was used to. Managing to pray shacharit, the morning prayer, every morning was difficult due to morning sports practices. Receiving messages about being seen walking around in a suit Friday nights through Saturday afternoon were definitely fun, but when I got to shul, I started to feel out of place due to all the struggles. Suddenly, only dating Jewish became a challenge as well. By the end of junior year, I transferred to a school with a bigger Jewish population. I knew that I needed to be with other Jews who could inspire me to keep up my goals.

After that, things started to improve again. I joined CTeen and NCSY, two youth organizations that really impacted me. I attended shabbatons and events all over Texas and the United States, and got to meet other Jewish teens just like me.  I became the one that all of the other Jewish teens in my community looked up to.

I am happy to say that even with all of the challenges that came up, I kept the promises that I made to myself—I kept every single one of the mitzvot I took on for all four years of high school. I was able to stay true to myself because of my involvement with the Jewish community. One of the main things that kept me connected was writing for CTeen Connection, a magazine where I was part of a team of seventeen other Jewish teens from diverse backgrounds. Writing articles, filming skits, and being an international leader for CTeen gave me the chance to work on bringing other Jewish teens closer to Judaism, which also helped me stay connected. This is the same reason that I applied to learn in Israel for a year. I want to grow and continue to strengthen my Judaism, as well as my sense of Jewish pride and my spirit. I want to be able to further my knowledge in Gemara, Halacha, Mishna, and Dinim.  I want to know that I am capable of opening any one of the books mentioned above and learn on my own, not depending on anyone to teach me or wait until a weekly or monthly class becomes available at my shul. I want to take all of the steps I’ve made so far and go even further in my journey.

I feel as if this is not only for joy but a responsibility as a Jew, to be able to learn and truly understand our religion as well as our culture, and what better place to do that than Israel.