URJ Teen Wins National Better Together Essay Competition

The Better Together program is generously funded by a well-respected national philanthropist and brings together Jewish teens and seniors for learning, sharing, and relationship building in synagogues, day schools and senior centers.  The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with our congregations to bring this free programming to local communities. (Learn more about our 2017 programs.)

Teen participants are invited to write short essays about their experience in Better Together which are then entered into the Better 2 Write competition. The essay below was written by Jocelyn McCauley of Temple Emanuel of Livingston, NJ and was chosen from over 30 essays as the High School North American Better 2 Write Winner.  Jocelyn not only received a scholarship to camp or Israel for her own use, but her congregation also received a generous donation to their scholarship fund to help other children attend camp or Israel programs.


It is not always easy to talk with people older than you, especially when they have different experiences than you. Personally, I find it difficult to talk with people who I do not know well or who I am not friends with, so coming to confirmation class and talking with the elderly members was a scary prospect for me. My friends in the class managed to convince me to go to the class and I went, all be it very reluctantly at first. I was not sure of why a confirmation class was needed, I had already had my bat-mitzvah and I went to temple on occasion so I did not understand why I had to confirm my beliefs and to confirm that I was Jew. However, as I went on with class and started talking to the elder members of our temple I realized that there was a lot about Judaism that I was not as committed to as I had believed I was previously. Talking with the elders at our temple made me realize that there was a lot I took for granted, religion being one of them. Maybe this class was more important to figuring out who I was than I had realized before.

One of the elders at my temple, Tony, told me that when he was in college he was an outcast, but not by choice. He was a Jew, going to a prestigious college in London during the early 1940s, and he, unfortunately, was one of the few Jews who went to his school. At college, Tony was constantly verbally attacked by his peers, and on occasion he was even subject to physical violence. His peers did not understand his religion, and while they were not under the control of the Nazis, there was a high amount of anti-Semitism present in England. Most of the anti-Semitism was due to the belief that the Jews were the reason for the bombings happening in England and the reason why their family and friends were being drafted into the military. Tony did not harbor any hatred towards those who hurt him, be it physically or verbally, and instead allowed for it to help him grow his character and to grow as a person. He said that while it was horrible that some of his peers could not feel any empathy towards him or his people, it was his religion that helped him through that time.

Judaism has a key set of morals, ethics, and values that are held in high esteem. We Jews use those morals and ethics on a daily basis, our values showing through in our personalities and the way in which we talk. Tony told me that these characteristics, the fundamental values of our Judaism is what kept him going. For him, it was our sense of self-preservation, compassion, diligence, empathy, mitzvot, and faith that helped him. I knew of many of the Jewish characteristics that were key to our people, but Tony brought a new light to it. He was religious, but not in the way that most people think of when they hear the word religious. Tony, while he did not go to temple every Shabbat, kept tight to his morals and his values that his Judaism gave him. To him, religion was a set of traditions and ways that gave you a base for your personality, it acted like a moral compass.

In some ways I think that that is what I did not have. I had viewed religion as some set of rules that people thousands of years ago had made, rules that were not even remotely relevant anymore. However, the more that I thought about it, the more I realized how drastically wrong I was. Religion was not just an old, silly set of rules and prayers in a language that I did not quite understand, but rather it was something that was there to help guide you, to help you through your life. While I am not going to suddenly start going to Shabbat services more than I already do, I know that I will be a better Jew. I will do those random acts of kindness without expecting anything in return, I will be strong, I will fight for my beliefs and I will feel empathetic towards those in a different situation than myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I will never be the “perfect” Jew, but from now on, I will be a better Jew, and I will strive to show the other people that Jews are here to stay; that we are not just something that can be pushed around. I will show that we are the kindest and most empathetic, yet at the same time the strongest and most diligent people in our world.