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  • Devra C. Aarons

What makes you Jew? By Kyla Cohen and Nate Greenberg

Good evening. My name is Nate Greenberg.

Good evening, My name is Kyla Cohen

Note: I grew up attending B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek and I currently go to Northgate.

Kyla: I grew up at Beth Chaim in Danville and I go to San Ramon Valley High School

Nate: For the last five years, Wednesday nights at Midrasha have been my place to dive into meaningful conversations, into connected friendships, and even deep into fun.

Take the last month for example. First, Devra led the senior class into a discussion that pointed to friendship as an essential part of the human condition. Tony Kushner writes that “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” A conversation centered on texts from wisdom-filled teachers fostered a deep conversation about platonic and romantic relationships, friendships, and where they stand in our adolescent lives.

Three days later, I hopped on a bus and went on a two-night retreat in the mountains. New and old friends were everywhere, coupled with activities, camp-wide games, learning, and so much more. Without cell service, I didn’t think about the past or future–I was so fully in the moment. I was immersed in the joy that retreats bring to me and so many others.

Three days after that, I went back to Midrasha on Valentine's Day. What may have been a sad day for someone not in a relationship, became a fascinating conversation about conditional versus unconditional love. Does unconditional love exist? Honestly, I don't know. That was the perfect combination of pick-me-up and meaning that got me through the day.

Kyla: Last year, as each of us was preparing for our separate high school junior proms, we realized something was missing. Our high schools were secular and lacking in Jewishness. Many of us found ourselves isolated and were 1 of the very few Jewish kids at our schools, so we decided that we needed to have a Jewish junior prom, or as we called it “Jom,” “Jormal,” or “Jew-nior,” prom (we had lots of fun names for it).

So, we planned the whole thing–outfits, decor, venue, food, pictures, everything– but that was before we had a date, or, more importantly, asked Devra. But of course, as soon as we pitched the idea, Devra was ecstatic and supported us in the harder part of our planning, finding a date that worked for all 26 of us. It took almost a full Midrasha day which is 2 hours, to find the right day and after phone calls home to parents and lots of shuffling we finally found our date.

We spent so much time finding a date because everyone had to be there. No one was to miss out. Keeping a strong Jewish community for every person is what Midrasha does. Even with 26 people, each and every one of us had grown and learned together at Midrasha, creating a bond that allowed for no exclusions.

It’s as important as ever, given troublesome geopolitical situations out of our control, to find the spaces that make Jewish-ness both meaningful and fun. Surrounding, stressors, war and more,

Midrasha has been there for both comfort and debate, marrying feelings with conversation in a reassuring way. Midrasha was the primary way I coped with anger about October 7th. I had a place to express my frustration, while engaging in thoughtful conversations. Simply being with like minded people who were ready to listen provided immeasurable support. I hope every kid, Jewish or not, has a place like Midrasha that provides the same kind of comfort in all situations.

Midrasha has been that place for me as well, For example, one Wednesday night in early Fall, I commandeered a classroom with 3 other students from my school San Ramon Valley who also attend Midrasha. We had scheduled a meeting with admin for the next day to talk to them about the extreme antisemitism we had felt at school because of studets' complete lack of education on the war happening in Gaza. We decided to get together at Midrasha to plan out exactly what we wanted to say together, we needed to sound like a unified front and not talk over each other.

We spent all of that night planning it out. And without having Midrasha as that place to plan, that first meeting wouldn't have gone as well as it did. Admin had committed to shift their message and make the facts more clear. And that was a large win, as the school had previously refused to identify Hamas as a terrorist group. That meeting shifted their perspective and opened up more meetings and people to talk to, helping our school to become more accepting and understanding. Because of our time together at Midrasha, we sounded unified, well-educated, and most importantly strong.

I grew up always curious. I often looked over my parents and friends shoulders because I was simply curious. Fast forward ten years and that curiosity has stuck with me. Whether it's the random question in the middle of a conversation or scrolling through Wikipedia pages because I can, I always find time to learn. This exemplifies the Jewish principle of “Torah Lishmah,” which teaches one to learn for the sake of learning. My inquisitiveness is one of the ways I connect to Judaism, and Midrasha is the outlet for me.

One night at Midrasha we were talking about the idea of bravery. One text described the bravery necessary for one to start a conversation with another. You don't know if the listener will be receptive to your words; you just have to take a chance. I was so into it, conversing with my peers, grasping the texts, and sharing ideas. Time flew by, and by the end, I was totally lost in the conversation. I said to Devra as I walked out, “this is the jewish learning I come to Midrasha for.” I could not connect the way I do to Judaism without the deep learning that occurs on Wednesday nights.

Now I need to talk about how to be Jewish is to be loud because we are in a constant battle with the rest of the world to be seen, to be heard, and to not have our history erased. I was a loud kid growing up, I spoke my mind, even when I maybe shouldn't have, and I felt I had to do this for many reasons. I was a very small kid growing up, and because of that, people took my opinions as small, so to combat that I was loud. It was also because I grew up in a very Christian town,

where holiday elementary school parties consisted of decorating Christmas tree ornaments and baking cookies to bring home for Santa. And so being the loud and proud Jewish kid I was, I would go right up to my teachers every year and tell that how I was “absolutely not participating”.

I went on being the loud small Jewish woman I thought I needed to be and continued speaking my mind trying to be heard for years, it was exhausting. So when I came into Midrasha I was prepared to have to feel and be the same way, but here I finally felt heard. I didn't have to yell and call people out on their antisemitism because we were all Jewish!

And this place is full of like-minded kind people who listen and, yes, sometimes argue, but progressively and respectfully causing everyone to learn together. I didn't feel like I was drowning anymore, it was quite literally the perfect mid-week break from school. Midrasha has not only given me a community but it has also helped me grow into myself and my voice.

One of the ways I have used that voice recently was on our winter retreat, where Devra asked me if I would give a D’var Torah. In the D’var, I was able to talk about how we can all find Judaism all around us, and how we all experience Judaism differently. I gave this D’var to help give back to the community that helped me find the voice that I now am speaking to you with.

And I don't even have to yell!

Midrasha does it all. Whether on retreats, in class, or talking to friends, Midrasha fosters the community to create meaning in Judaism, build lasting friendships, and be in the moment, all without skipping a beat. I have both made my best friends and gotten a grasp on various global topics from Wednesday nights. I learned to fundraise through the Hamsa fund and how to save someone’s life with Narcan. There is nothing Midrasha cant do for a Jewish teen.

The educators here all work together to form this amazing and supportive group of people, that my class and others truly can't thank enough and are so blessed to have. This community has given me and so many others so much and I am going to miss it an astronomical amount next year.

Thank you for your continued support of such a wonderful organization. Midrasha is not what it is today without your continued support. And this cannot end without saying an immeasurable “thank you” to Devra. She is the reason Midrasha is as amazing as it is. From programming and teaching None of this would be happening if it weren’t for Devra’s constant behind-the-scenes work.

Devra you have truly given us so much, and we are not exaggerating for all of you. Devra has stayed late to help me and my friends work through hard times, she has cried with us, laughed with us, and has written me an amazing letter of recommendation for my college applications which moved my parents to tears and helped me get into my dream schools. But most importantly she cares so much about us that Midrasha is not only a Jewish community for us to come to but a home that we find sanctuary in.

And for all of you wondering, that prom we threw was amazing! We danced together all night and ate too many brownies. We stayed probably later than we should have and all got to be together in the way we dreamed to be.

Thank you

Thank you for your continued support of such a wonderful organization.

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