North American Teens Empowered After Day of Rest in NYC

A drum circle celebrates the close of the Jewish Sabbath aboard a yacht as part of the National CTeen Shabbaton. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
A drum circle celebrates the close of the Jewish Sabbath aboard a yacht as part of the National CTeen Shabbaton. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

The teens piled off the buses Saturday night, VIP All Access passes around their necks, and got ready for the red carpet walk. They flashed winning smiles at the cameras, which followed their every move as they threw their arms around new friends and boarded a yacht for an evening of music, food and fun.

The National CTeen Shabbaton brought together more than 200 teens from all over the United States and Canada in New York City to help them understand the power of youth, said Noach Pawlinger, creative director for the Chabad-Lubavitch run family of youth programs. “We’re empowering them to create more of a difference in their local communities and in their own chapters as well.”

Combining sightseeing, Sabbath services, inspirational discussions, and the Saturday night bash, the weekend offered a combination of fun and enlightenment.

At Pier 78 in Manhattan, the crowd poured on board to a waiting three floors of lights, music and activities. There was dancing, music, a drum circle, and a table for partiers to make cards for beneficiaries of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl. There was also a sushi station, made-to-order paninis, and mixed drinks sans alcohol.

“It’s all part of it: They should know that the spotlight is on them, that they can make a difference,” explained Rochelle Ginsburg, coordinator of the VIP Jewish Teen Yacht event. “The whole idea is that they’re the VIPs. They’re very important people and the world depends on them.”

Black and white balloons lined the ceiling of the boat’s top floor, where pink and white lights glittered.

“We’re going to do the Havdalah ceremony,” came the voice over the bullhorn, beckoning guests to a traditional service marking the close of the Jewish Sabbath.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” they counted down, and Chabad-Lubavitch of Beijing, China, director Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, stepped onto the stage.

“It’s great to see everybody here,” he said to the mass of adolescents buzzing with excitement. “Let’s have a cheer for the Jewish teens in China.”

Cheer they did. Loudly. Freundlich explained the significance of separating the holy Sabbath from the rest of the week, and implored the teens to make separations in their own lives with the decisions that they make.

Cell phones popped into the air and camera flashes reflected off the walls as the teens craned their necks to see the Havdalah candle lights.

Amen,” they shouted after each blessing. “Shavua Tov,” Hebrew for a “good week” replied over the speakers. “Are you guys ready to rock the house?”

The music blared, and the dancing began. The ladies took the dance floor upstairs first, swinging in circles, their boots pounding the floor.

“I’ve never really done something like that before,” said Elizabeth Gergel, 18, of Asheville, N.C. “Everyone’s having fun together, dancing together. Experiencing that with so many Jewish girls is powerful.”

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More than 200 teens board a yacht at Pier 78 in Manhattan. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

A Bunch of Firsts

She paused, panini in hand, to explain what the weekend meant to her. Gergel, who came with four others from her area, said she had a bunch of firsts this weekend. She kept the Sabbath for the first time, abstaining from the use of electricity from sunset Friday to nightfall Saturday, for example.

“I thought it was pretty incredible. I especially loved how present I could be every moment,” she offered, “because I was without my cell phone and didn’t feel the need to check it.”

It’s a lesson she said she plans to take home with her.

“I want to try to start not using my cell phone on Shabbat,” she said. “It would be nice to have one day per week where I can focus on what I’m doing.”

Adam Edery, 14, of Montreal, Canada, said he’s decided to wear tzitzit, a traditional four-cornered fringed undergarment worn by Jewish men, in honor of the weekend.

“It’s a symbol that I’m Jewish and proud,” he explained.

Edery credited Dmitry Salita, an observant Jewish boxer who spoke to the group earlier last weekend, with inspiring him to make the decision.

“Before I thought that sports and religion were completely separate and that you couldn’t do both,” said Edery, who dreams of being a professional basketball player. “Now I realize that it’s possible; you don’t have to give up religion for sports.”

Rebecka Zwolinski, 15, of Fairfax, Va., said she’ll go home knowing she doesn’t have to worry anymore about kids at her public high school judging her for wearing skirts instead of pants. She had the chance to sit down with a rabbi, who explained to her that she can be proud of her Judaism and the premium it places on modesty, in public.

“I can tell them it’s part of my religion; it’s part of how I’m Jewish," she said. “Now I can be more comfortable and open about it.”

She spoke from one of the tables lining the boat’s lower level, the Statue of Liberty passing by in the windows.

“It’s amazing. I’ve never been on a yacht,” she shouted over the music. “I love the people I’m surrounded with, the amazing food, and dancing.”

Jake Plonskier, 15, of Miami, Fla., attended the weekend last year and was itching to come back for more. As teens lined up to play Xbox on the yacht’s main floor, he talked about the sushi, the rabbis juggling fire, the yacht, and what brought him back.

“It’s amazing how everybody’s doing the same thing that you are,” he said of spending the Sabbath in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where teens were hosted by local families.

“At home, some people are watching TV, have their video games on, but here everybody’s walking around celebrating the same holiday that you are,” he said. “It makes it easy, makes it enjoyable.”