By Elizabeth Snellings, NFTY-NO
For the longest time, I could never really say that I witnessed anything that was utterly extraordinary or breathtaking. While I am easily entertained and fascinated, it takes a lot to bring me to a state of complete awe and wonder. I thought that by attending the URJ Biennial, I would only receive a nice experience to learn new things, and maybe even make new friends. I gained, however, much more from those four days than I ever would have imagined.
Everything first began when my plane was descending into D.C. I, unlike my peers, had never been to the nation’s capital before. Being a history nerd, I was enamored. Arriving at the Gaylord Convention center was overwhelming. I live in a tiny town 20 minutes outside of Madison in Wisconsin. The population is only about 5,000, and there’ is only about 930 students at my school. When I found out that Biennial would have over 6,000 attendees and 200 of those would be NFTYites, I was terrified.
I had been traveling with a few other friends from my region (NFTY-Northern). They had attended Kutz Camp the previous summer, Midwest Mash up, NFTY Convention, and other NFTY North American events where they were afforded opportunities to make connections across the country and beyond. I, on the other hand, had only been to two other NFTY events, NFTY-NO Summer and Fall Kallah of this year. I was excited to meet some new people (and listen to OBAMA, OF COURSE), but at the same time, I was nervous out of my mind. After registration and a few other programs, the day ended and we had to go to bed. And the next day, we were going to listen to Obama. My mind was racing, but luckily I was able to sleep a bit.
The next day went from being slightly crazy, to a bit more crazy, to OH MYLANTA WE’RE SEEING THE PRESIDENT , all in a matter of hours. The convention center was being locked down for not only the arrival of the U.S. president, but the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, as well. Being in this atmosphere was exhilarating. The entire day I kept thinking to myself, “I’m really here. I’m not dreaming.” When it was time for us to go through security, I felt extremely intimidated. Everyone in the group was shoved and crowded together, scrambling to get through security and get a good view in the convention center. After being smushed a little too close next to many a stranger, I scurried my way into the crowd, searching for fellow NFTYites. When I entered, my jaw nearly dropped to the ground. I glanced around the room, and literally wall-to-wall, was the largest collection of people I had ever seen in one place. 6,000 people in one room had never surrounded me at the same time; my head was spinning. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that all of these people had a connection to me through Judaism. It was surreal. When I was finally able to sit down, my legs were twitching with anxiety and excitement. People were taking pictures, hugging, and anticipating the arrival of President Obama. After several speakers including Rabbi Eric Yoffie and an interesting performance from Josh Nelson, the moment we had all been waiting for had arrived. Obama emerged from the depths of Secret Service cover and entered the stage. My heart was pounding. Here I was, simple Lizzie Snellings, standing in the same room as President Obama at the same time, witnessing history. I couldn’t believe it. When he acknowledged NFTY being “in the house”, I nearly died! All 200-something NFTYites stood up and cheered wildly for the acknowledgement received from the President of the United States. And after seeing our reaction, Obama’s face lit up. That was truly the most wonderful part of his entire speech. It was outstanding.
Ever since I watched Obama’s inaugural speech on t.v. in the middle of my 7th grade history class, I was enamored by the manner in which he spoke. The way he so gracefully yet powerfully addressed every audience member he was speaking to was enthralling. I remember thinking back to that moment in my 7th grade class as I listened to Obama speak for the second time, but not through a television broadcast: through a live encounter. Even to this day, I will relive and reminisce in the feelings I experienced by simply listening to his words of wisdom, courage, and strength for all that is good and just.
Of course, listening to Obama live in person and acknowledge strength of the URJ and NFTY was incredible. However, there was another program I specifically remembered that took place in the beginning of that same day. Together, all NFTY teens were compiling and creating writings, poetry, doodles, playlists, and anything else in between, together, in order to form a book. Something that really stuck with me was a member of the North American Board explaining to us, “this is OUR book.” It was something that truly made me remember that I was a part of a community. That I, an awkward and nervous overachieving sophomore from a small farming village in Wisconsin, was connected to hundreds of teens across the continent. I felt like I really had a place to go to in time of hurt, happiness, exhaustion, or anything else. Finally, I felt as though I had found where I truly belonged, after so many tiring experiences of searching throughout my life. Attending Biennial made me truly believe that for the first time, I can make a difference in the world. It made me believe that people have the ability to change the world if they put their mindset and hearts to their goals. I will never forget my Biennial experience, I will never forget the butterflies in my tummy from reminiscing in the memories, and I will never forget nor underestimate my abilities to succeed and help in this world.