Finding myself &mdash again &mdash at a weekend in the woods

We sat in a circle as the sun set behind the Sonoma hills. As one of 10 staffers at a ninth-grade Jewish retreat, I helped explain the afternoon activity, called “secrets.” I knew the teens immediately understood the seriousness of the exercise because, for the first time all weekend, they were so quiet I could hear my own breath.

The rules were simple. Anyone who wanted to share a secret could. Every confession was to remain completely confidential and respected. Just in case a secret opened the floodgates, teens could talk to an on-site therapist after the activity.

The goal was to build community by building trust. The retreat was planned by Midrasha, a community high school program supported by the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay’s Center for Jewish Living and Learning, and local synagogues.

For an hour, teens and even staffers spoke up, each voice a single tree in a quiet field. One secret in particular took root in my mind: “I feel like students at my school judge me, and think of me as someone with no social life who studies all the time.”

The secrets (and tears) continued, punctuated by laughter when more than one boy revealed he liked … Oprah. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the revelation that one of the teens felt unfairly judged by peers. It reminded me of, well, me.

I don’t reflect on my high school experience. But I can’t help doing so when I’m at these retreats.

Like many 14-year-olds, I was awkward and shy in new social situations. I didn’t play sports or join school clubs. I was happy hanging out with my small, well-behaved circle of friends, who all hovered somewhere between nerdy and cool.

I joined the Jewish youth group BBYO in the spring of eighth grade, and my whole life changed.

I became a leader. I planned programs, attended sleepovers and conventions, was elected to the high-profile regional board. By my senior year, younger members looked up to me.

A lot of what I learned in BBYO I carry with me today. I’m comfortable in my own skin, proud of being Jewish, unafraid to try new things and meet new people — all traits that bloomed because of youth group.

Once when I went to a weekend convention, someone told me she thought it was interesting that some of our friends were “dorks” at their high schools but considered cool and universally well liked in our youth group.

Would if Midrasha provide the same opportunity? I would soon find out.

The room sagged from the weight

of all that truth as the “secrets” discussion concluded. I worried that the emotional purge would darken the evening’s activities.

But when night fell and Havdallah concluded, I saw that the secret-sharing had bonded the teens just like we hoped. How could I tell?

Just before the evening’s talent show, many of the previously horrified-to-be-center-stage students signed up to perform, no longer reluctant to get out of their comfort zones. They told jokes, read poetry and contorted their double-jointed limbs. All routines were met with cheers and applause.

The clapping echoed in my brain, and I realized why Jewish youth programming is so powerful — because it gives teens the power to break free from the rigid social grids of high school.

With Midrasha, BBYO and the like, students are given a clean slate and the chalk to sketch and inhabit their real selves. They can reinvent their identity in ways that otherwise aren’t possible until college or adulthood.

That this is happening in a Jewish context is important. Suddenly, Judaism is not just prayer books and a map of Israel, but the reason why they are able to grow, gain confidence and feel a sense of camaraderie that might be absent in their school lives.

It gives them a reason to love being Jewish — and a reason to believe in themselves.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.