Leah Katz, a TeenZone camper at Oorah’s TheZone summer camp and an 11th grader at Midwood High School, read her winning essay about how TheZone changed her views on Judaism at the Jewish Heritage Awards Ceremony held at Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s office in April. The purpose of the Jewish Heritage Essay Contest is to acquaint public school students with Jewish history and customs and to help foster a deeper understanding of Jewish culture. The contest is open to students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Leah’s essay is reproduced in full below.
“You’re going to public school,” my dad said to me. At eight years old I didn’t care to know about the difference between a yeshiva and public school. I still remember my first day in public school, nervously walking in with my mother and new third grade teacher. Everything seemed to be different, the teachers, the kids, the clothing, and the schedules, but nothing mattered to me at eight. All I knew was that my new school wasn’t an hour bus ride but a ten minute walk from my house. The comparisons between my new and old school soon faded as I became used to my new friends and classmates. My days at school became shorter because we didn’t have Hebrew classes or davening in the mornings. My knowledge of Judaism began to deteriorate as I slowly began to forget the meaning behind holidays and how to read and write. Around the age of ten, I completely forgot how to spell my own name in Hebrew and as a kid I didn’t know the importance of knowing your own religion.
“You’re going to TheZone,” my dad told me seven years later. For a girl who didn’t care what she wore and who she talked to or how she talked, it was like reliving a nightmare. I remember crying for hours thinking that in a couple of weeks I would be among the girls who wore skirts everyday and threatening my parents that I wouldn’t get on the bus that departed to camp.
A few weeks later, on June 28, 2011, I was on my way to TheZone, convincing myself that it couldn’t be that bad. My mom and dad drove me, they were also nervous about leaving me alone for the first time. As we entered the campus we heard Jewish music playing, girls dancing and hugging after waiting for the day for months. As I stepped out of the car, I realized I knew nobody. I felt my heart sinking into my stomach.
Overwhelmed by all the new faces, I put a smile on my face to comfort my mother and father, letting them know that everything would be all right. As they began to leave, more and more girls came to me asking for my name and introducing themselves to me. “They’re way too nice,” I remember thinking to myself. I could never forget the first night of camp even if I tried. I will never forget the dancing which excited me, and the new people that comforted me, and I will never forget looking around at the girls who would soon become my closest friends. Coming into the camp I never expected religious Jews to be this fun.
As the days went by, I found myself enjoying the summer days with my new friends. But I realized I was one of the very few girls that went to public school. All the other girls knew Hebrew and how to daven.
On the first Friday in camp we received our Torah Mates. A Torah Mate, as I discovered, is one staff member who teaches you about Torah and is there for you all throughout camp. I didn’t know what to ask my Torah Mate or what to learn. After a couple of days we decided to learn the Hebrew alphabet. Slowly I began to relearn the letters I once knew, each day taking it one step at a time.
On my first Friday at camp, I also discovered that everyone kept Shabbos, a day for resting. I had never kept Shabbos in my life but I decided to blend in with the group and keep it too. For two months in camp I kept Shabbos, I wore skirts, and I learned more about my religion. The inspiration I received that year was indescribable but something that didn’t last forever. When I got back from camp I promised myself that I was going to keep every Shabbos, wear more skirts, and only eat kosher. Of course, that did not happen. After a month I gave up mostly wearing skirts, and soon I gave up only eating kosher, which was practically impossible living in a family that didn’t live by those rules. Finally after three months I gave up keeping Shabbos. Embarrassed that I stopped doing everything I promised myself I would, I distanced myself away from most of my friends I made in camp. I never went to the Shabbatons or overnights the camp offered during the year and I didn’t continue learning with my Torah Mates. Soon I was back to being the old girl I was.