For 16-year old Eden Luvishis, an inner drive to seek meaning from her Judaism led her to making three-hour roadtrips to and from NorCal NCSY meetings in Oakland, California. NorCal events are the closest NCSY meetups to Eden’s home in Santa Rosa. But Eden is more than game for traveling the distance – both literally and figuratively – to continue her Jewish journey.
“My parents emigrated from Russia while my mother was pregnant with me, and when they settled in California, they tried to celebrate as many Jewish traditions as possible, like lighting Shabbat candles and saying Shema,” explained Eden. “Because these traditions meant so much to me growing up, I knew I wanted to continue engaging with my Judaism and take it to a deeper level.”
As a freshman in high school, where she was one of a handful of Jewish students, Eden tried participating in several different Jewish youth groups, but couldn’t find one that mixed the right amount of social programming with actual Jewish learning– that is, until someone told her about NCSY. NCSY’s closest chapter was in Oakland, about an hour and half drive for Eden each way. She gave it a try despite the distance.
“I attended my first regional in the spring of 2016, and I loved it immediately,” recalled Eden. “NCSY was everything I liked socially and it was everything I was searching for spiritually. I finally had the opportunity to ask advisors and rabbis questions and expand my knowledge in the direction I was seeking. I was amazed by how receptive everyone was to my questions and how willing they were to have honest and open discussions about anything.”
Eden’s parents willingly drove her the long way there and back many times for events such as Shabbatons, Latte & Learns, and meetings. To continue the momentum, she decided to spend this past summer participating in NCSY’s The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey Ambassadors Poland (TJJ AP) program, in which she spent a week touring Poland before going on to Israel for a month.
Eden had long maintained a deep interest in reading books and viewing movies about the Holocaust, and had even facilitated a visit by a Holocaust survivor to her public high school during her sophomore year. “I thought I knew everything there was to know and I figured I could basically be the tour guide for Poland when the program was underway,” said Eden. “I was shocked, however, as to the amount of Holocaust facts and stories that I was made aware of that I had never learned about from any of my studies.”
One of the most significant experiences during her week in Poland was informed by her previous experience of bringing the Holocaust survivor whom she had arranged to visit her school. The survivor’s father was murdered at Auschwitz, and the survivor had never returned to the site. When Eden knew she would be visiting there, she got in touch with him and he asked her to bring a small stone with her to place on the site in memory of his father. “It made the entire experience real for me” said Eden. “I wasn’t just listening to testimony, I was actually being an emissary for someone who survived the war and serving as that profound connection for him to be able to pay a tribute to his father.”
Back home in California, Eden felt even more determined than ever to turn her passion for Judaism into tangible action. “When I returned home, I was both inspired to pursue the growth I experienced during TJJ AP and discouraged to see that it was difficult to maintain that momentum back in the ‘real world.’ I realized I couldn’t change my life in these drastic ways and expect real results,” she reflected. “I decided to focus on just a few projects that would pass on some of what I had learned on TJJ to others in my community.”
Eden began working with a local artist on a Holocaust memorial. With a grant from the Teen Curriculum Initiative of San Francisco, she refashioned Project GenMix, an initiative she had founded in 2013 for her bat mitzvah that was meant to bridge the gap between today’s teens and senior citizens. “My contemporaries and I are really the last generation who are going to be able to hear first-hand testimonies from survivors,” said Eden. “I remember the way many of my peers tuned out when the survivor spoke at our school, and while I understood their lack of connection, it was discouraging. My trip to Poland helped me become more determined than ever to make GenMix a success, so I can help close the huge generational gap between us and the older generations.”
In true go-getter fashion, Eden called the three synagogues in her community to get the names and numbers of seniors belonging to their congregations, and got in touch with a couple of local senior living homes too. GenMix held a successful Chanukah party in which seniors and teens participated in ice breaker games, told stories of their diverse life experiences, and enjoyed traditional Jewish foods. Eden was encouraged to see one of her peers attend the Chanukah soirée and then, on his own initiative, arrange a lunch with that same senior citizen the following week to continue their conversation.
Eden also decided to take a new step in her NCSY involvement and serve on the NCSY board as the Vice President for Education, a role in which she is charged with creating the educational component of Shabbatons. “My goal is to create learning opportunities in which teens can engage with Jewish topics in a fun and meaningful way,” said Eden. “Instead of just sitting and listening to lectures, I try to create peer-to-peer discussions and a lot of advisor sessions in which NCSYers can actively take ownership of their learning.”
Eden clearly knows a lot about taking ownership of a journey. Now that she has a driver’s license, she makes the three-hour round-trip drive herself for NorCal NCSY events. She also founded a local Latte & Learn program in her immediate neighborhood this past September to bring the NCSY excitement to teens who might be motivated to become involved, but are not as motivated to drive for three hours as she does.
Rabbi Akiva Naiman, NorCal Chapter Director, only met Eden a few months ago when he returned to the Bay area and NCSY after a two-year stint in Israel, but he was immediately struck by her passion for Judaism and her conviction for turning talk into action. “Eden is a real go-getter and just powers ahead after making plans for something,” said Rabbi Naiman. A few NCSY teens talked about founding more local Latte & Learn programs for their neighborhoods, but Eden is the first one of them to actually go ahead and do it. She’s great at communication, but she doesn’t just stop at talking. To me, that’s the mark of a great leader. Eden is looking to make a real difference in this world and make it a better place, and I already see her accomplishing that.”
When asked where she gets her drive for action and her passion for Judaism, unique in anyone but especially a 16-year old in the world today, Eden didn’t hesitate before crediting her great-grandmother. “At 96, my great-grandmother is one of the smartest people I know and one who always told me that no matter what I do in life, I need to remember that I’m Jewish and appreciate how much easier it is to be a Jewish now in America than it was for my great-grandparents, grandparents and even parents in the Soviet Union. I took her words to heart and I let that be the guiding factor in everything I do.”
This article originally appeared in Ignite, Spring 2018