By Max Clary
Birmingham ’12 participant; 2013 summer intern
Last year I found myself searching for something meaningful to do during the summer. At age 16, I wanted something more than incessantly singing camp songs at the sleep away camp where I’d spent the past three summers. My mom found an opportunity for me to go to Birmingham, AL with the American Jewish Society for Service (AJSS). At first, I was uneasy about the whole Jewish part of the AJSS program. In my life, my mom has always been keen on immersing me in Jewish culture, but I’ve always been reluctant. Her many attempts to drag me to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturday mornings left me in a Jewish revolt. The harder she pushed, the more I resisted.
So when I first applied to AJSS, I thought the program was just another ploy for my mom to turn me into a “Super-Jew.” But after I Skyped with Rena, I realized AJSS was less about turning teens into “Super-Jews” and more about giving me the chance to change my life by helping others change theirs. Once I accepted that AJSS was not another trick from my mom, I became really excited about meeting new kids and getting the chance to help people who were far less fortunate than I am. I decided to invite my friend Daniel to apply for AJSS. After I explained to him the purpose of the trip and what we would be doing, he promptly cancelled his trip to Hawaii and replaced it with a six-week adventure in Birmingham.
I came to AJSS in hopes of finding people who are honest, hardworking, compassionate, and smart. And that’s exactly what I found. After arriving in Birmingham, the group endured some awkward hellos and forced ice breaker games. But they served their purpose, and we quickly started to mesh. Whether on work sites or writing poetry for Real Life, we were a team. And it’s the indescribable connections I made during my AJSS summer that really changed my life. That said, the service we provided to the community was amazing and incredibly self-rewarding. We worked hard and we made a difference. But what still sticks with me are the connections we made as a group. I remember on Friday nights we would all get together, hang out and talk about some of our most valuable life experiences.
I learned a lot from my AJSS friends during our summer together. They showed me that amazing relationships can be built by helping each other out and being honest with one another. My friends also gave me hope. They showed me that the world isn’t only filled with wars and deceit, as the world news section of The New York Times would have me believe. They showed me there are amazing people out there who are always trying to help others. I am grateful that AJSS provides a way to turn words and thoughts into actions.
Will AJSS change your life the way it changed mine? I have no idea. But if you arrive with an open mind, anything’s possible. Except non-awkward hellos. Those will always be awkward.