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WE Essay Winner

12th Annual Betty Siegel Essay Contest

Betty Siegel was a wonderful advocate and supporter of our synagogue and Sisterhood. She created a Fund for Jewish education and scholarship that now supports our Essay Contest for our Graduating High School Seniors.

The theme of this year's essay was I'm a Jew.  Now What? Many students entered this contest that was judged by our committee. Congratulations to the winners and their families. 

The 1st Place winner of the $360 Scholarship is Aaron Konz. He is the son of Andrea and Richard Konz. Aaron will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison Business School with a focus in the field of Actuarial Science.

The 2nd place winner of the $180 scholarship is Julia Appel. She is the daughter of Susan Hersh and Andrew Appel. Julia will be spending 10 months in Bulgaria with a State Department Scholarship program YES Abroad, then attending Tufts University in 2021.

Aaron's essay:

I am a Jew. This in itself makes me a minority, as I belong to a religion and culture that comprises less than .2% of the world. I am, more specifically, an American Reform Jew. I am proud to share a heritage with people who have persevered through massive social adversities to thrive as a sizable community in the 21st century.

But being Jewish, to me, is more than an ethnic affiliation. Judaism, especially in the Reform sector, focuses on a key principle: We aren’t meant to complete God's work, but we are commanded to facilitate progress. As exhibited by our country’s foreign relations, worldwide oppression of minority cultures and even the racial and sexual injustice within our own country (very recently elevated), the world is nowhere near “completion” and perfection. That does not mean, though, that we sit back and wait for the world to correct itself and the Messiah to return. As a civilization, we (Jews)-- Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, Chasedic, Ashkenazi and Sephardic alike--are commanded to fulfill the Torah’s mitzvot. But, without listing all 613 of them, what does that mean?

To me, as a devout American Reform Jew, it means preserving and furthering the rights of others that will enable them to live a prolific, fulfilling life. The preservation of life is a foundational mitzvot of Judaism, and as a Jewish American in a technologically-developed country, this is a commandment I have countless opportunities to realize. I can volunteer at the Jewish Community Pantry, working to provide food and necessities to struggling and sometimes-desperate families. I can leverage my societal position as a young American Jew to lobby my local representatives on issues of social justice. I can work on election campaigns of politicians that will prioritize the social welfare of their constituents over economic concerns and corporate bribes. I can use my voice to protest alongside my systemically-oppressed black brothers and sisters and advocate for social equity, to empower all Americans with possibilities for a fulfilling life. I have done all these things and will continue to do so through my lens of Reform Judaism.

As human beings, we create natural barriers, divides, classes, and groups based on similarities and differences. We build walls, put up fences, draw county lines and create political schisms. We divide ourselves in countless ways, yet we often fail to acknowledge that, even though we have our differences, we are all one in the same. We are all the children of God, and as Jews, it is our duty to ensure that we are progressing towards a society where all social rights become unalienable and the color of one’s skin, gender, citizen status, or sexual identity is irrelevant in the opportunities they receive. As a prospective college student at UW-Madison, I will promote an atmosphere of inclusion and equity through a conscientious, proactive mindset and a willingness to discuss social change in order to help students from all circumstances find an environment at Madison that feels inviting and fair.

Julia's essay:

I have a poster taped to my bedroom wall. It reads, “do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” With my Jewish identity comes a love of justice, and with that love of justice, thousands of years of Jewish ideas about creating a just world.

During my freshman year of high school, it seemed like the world was an angry whirlpool; that things were bad, and they weren't getting better. I had elaborate plans of running off to start a new life in Belize, or maybe in a tiny Alaskan cabin. It was around this time that I stumbled upon the above quote. The source given was “the Talmud,” and further research revealed it to be a mix of sentiments from various thinkers. But it spoke to me. It told me not to worry; it told me to act.

So I got busy. I phone-banked with the ACLU. I went to protests. I trained to become a legal observer and help protect protesters. I marched 50 miles across Wisconsin with 50 Miles More to demand that legislators listen to the concerns of teenagers. I met incredible people, and together, we made an impact. I was done being a person who sat back and watched. I became better at speaking up, and articulating the issues. I learned about stamina, and passion, and doing things even when you're afraid. I learned to tackle what I could, to not be daunted.

In January, I volunteered to be a legal observer at President Trump’s visit to Milwaukee. There were police officers, Secret Service, people attending the rally, protesters, medics, and us. My partner and I stood on a cement divider on a blocked-off street and watched the corner of Kilbourn and Vel Phillips Avenue become a scene from a documentary. That was our job. To watch, and to not be daunted by the enormity of not only the grief, but of the anger we saw.

It would be easier to disengage, to stay home from a Village Board meeting, to not show up to phone-bank. However, I am constantly reminded of my responsibility to others. I am reminded that I, as a Jew, am not free to desist from the work.

When I feel the weight of all that I am powerless to fix, I remind myself of what’s written on my bedroom wall. I don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems right now. I just have to do the best I can with what I have. All I have to do is lean on the knowledge that I descend from a people who over and over again survived against impossible odds, who lived by teachings that insisted on our responsibility to repair the world. I am a Jew, the product of generations who refused to be daunted.

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780