Shabbaton 2022: A Weekend of Unparalleled Pride

6 months ago The Connections Staff 0

Ethan Benenson// Hunterdon County, NJ

The weekend of February 25 to 27 marked a yearly occasion for Jewish teens all around the world. Starting from Thursday night and continuing through Friday morning, Jewish highschoolers from Argentina to Panama to California to Texas to New Hampshire to France to the UK to Italy (the list goes on) arrived in Crown Heights, a large predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York City. What did we all have in common? The group we belonged to that had brought us all together: CTeen.

Each year, CTeen HQ in NYC invites all the members of its chapters to an international convention called the INTL Shabbaton. I want to describe the personal story of the five Jewish boys (one of them is me) representing CTeen Hunterdon County who went to their first Shabbaton this year and came home with memories they will cherish for a lifetime.

When Rabbi Avraham Posner, the youth director of CTeen Hunterdon County, drove us to Crown Heights on Thursday night in the ‘Rabbi-mobile’ (our Rabbi and Rebbitzins family car) and brought us to the central building of the convention, we were thrown into a chaotic and uproarious scene of excitement. Hundreds of Jewish teens like us from all over the world were clustered together in this one big room—talking, laughing, meeting, eating. Now imagine us: five country bumpkins from Hunterdon County snaking our way through this huge swarm of people trying to find conversations to join. Just in those few hours, we met scores of people from all over the planet (but mostly France). It was amazing to see how excited everyone was. We had never seen so many laughing, smiling, young Jews, and talking to them gave us a whole new perspective on the INTL Shabbaton’s central message of how you can be Jewish whenever, wherever. If the Jewish people are keeping their pride and enthusiasm alive and strong in all these places, from Venezuela to Jamaica to Milan, what’s stopping us from doing the same?

This empowering message was continually reinforced by everything that we saw and did at the Shabbaton. On Friday, we took a day trip to Manhattan to meet up with some of Rabbi Avraham’s acquaintances. We talked with three successful Jewish professionals: first, a personal injury lawyer. Next, an entrepreneur with an office for his company NoFraud on the 76th floor of the One World Trade Center. And finally, an early employee for a real-estate tech company called LevCapital headquartered in SoHo in lower Manhattan. Through their stories and example, they showed us that Judaism is not just reserved for the synagogue; being who you are and staying true to yourself is something you can and should do whenever, wherever.

On Friday evening, we went to 770. This is one of the synagogues most important to the Chabad movement, the branch of Judaism that CTeen is affiliated with. Coming from Hunterdon County, we could not have even imagined a congregation so large, lively and ardent. Hundreds of Jews were all singing the same songs and prayers they have continued to sing every week for thousands of years in spite of constant persecution and endless adversity. Old Rabbis with foot-long gray beards were dancing and clapping their hands like children, with only pure bliss and joy shining—no, pouring—out of their twinkling blue eyes. I had never even met anyone in the synagogue, but as soon as the songs started going it felt like we were all one family, with one heart, one prayer, one soul. The air was filled with awe, and at that moment I had never felt closer to Hashem.

The inspiration and connection did not stop there, because on Saturday night came the highlight of the INTL Shabbaton. Along with all the Jewish teens that came from around the world, we swarmed the Crown Heights subway, all bound for one place: Times Square. We completely packed the subway and sang songs the whole ride. When we emerged from the subway into the heart of NYC, all the lights and commotion made us feel like the whole world could sense our excitement. Once everyone had arrived, the final phase of our Times Square Takeover was initiated: The images on the biggest billboards changed to videos of all the CTeen chapters across the globe and a live feed of all the Jewish teens who were gathered together here for the Shabbaton.

The next few hours were a blur. There was a lot of loud music, a lot of singing, a lot of dancing, jumping and all around positive, uplifting energy. Just try to imagine it: Jewish teens that came from all the corners of the planet proudly parading through the middle of Times Square. Even just a few decades ago this would have been inconceivable. It would have seemed impossible. For centuries, our enemies have tried in vain to strike us down. We have been endlessly, ruthlessly persecuted and hunted down by entire empires, nazis, cossacks and nearly everyone in between. Yet we survive to this day. We are stronger, prouder, more committed and passionate than we have ever been before, and we are only reaching higher.

Sunday brought a whole new personal connection. All the teens at the Shabbaton were driven in buses to the Ohel: the gravesite of both the Rebbe and his predecessor. This is an extremely holy place for Chabad Jews around the world; people will fly from anywhere just to visit this place for a few hours. What do they do there? They write a letter to the Rebbe asking for blessings, guidance, strength, solace and then tear it up, and throw the pieces into an enclosure around his grave. Rabbi Avraham told me that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to talk to the Rebbe himself. The Rebbe was an emissary of Hashem when he lived, a kind of liaison between the Jewish people and G-d. If there is anything you want in life or a storm of emotions you need to confide, you write to the Rebbe. I asked him to bless my family with long, peaceful lives. For myself I asked only the strength to always stay true to myself and remember everything that I learned and saw at the Shabbaton.

The whole drive back to Hunterdon County we were completely knocked out. The fun and adventure was pretty much nonstop the whole weekend. We soaked in so many experiences, lessons and stories—it might be another long while before we completely process and fully come to understand them. But now that we have felt the power of our Judaism, we come back to Hunterdon County in a wildfire of inspiration. The Shabbaton empowered us, and now we must harness that energy to do more for our community, to connect more teens and to take the next step in our personal journeys. As David Turret, the lawyer we visited, told us, “You have to know what you want to do, and if you’re not happy in your situation, you move on…You never know where you might end up, so stick to your own values and morals. Stay true to yourself, and do what you know is right.”