Noah Shaffer, a senior at ICJA, recently represented all day school students at the JUF Day School event, sharing his experience in the day school system. Addressing his conversion to Judaism at a young age, Noah’s unique perspective sheds light on the many opportunities that students often take for granted. Following is his speech.

NoahSI would like to tell you an unorthodox story: I moved to Chicago as a first grader, from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Now, you might be asking yourself, “Was he the only Jew there?” Well, yes—and no. Shortly after my family and I moved to Chicago, we converted. And, amongst the intrinsic, manifold drama linked to any conversion (at least I think that this wasn’t just me!), my parents and I visited Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School.

I distinctly—vividly—remember asking my mother, as we entered through the doors of this large, unmarked building, “Mom, are ALL of these kids Jewish?”

“Yes.”

THIS is the nucleus of my pride in the Jewish day school system. We are ALL Jewish. We are a singular, nuclear deputation in which we support each other, learn from each other and inspire one another. We all have mezuzot on our doorposts, and we’ve all listened to the words of the Torah in the language God gave it to us. This is a concept that, to me, has persistently retained its value. It cannot be understated.

During my 12 years as a constituent of the Jewish day school system, I have taken part in a myriad of opportunities I would have never thought possible.

I am nearly fluent in a language I may have never heard of. In middle school, through Camp TOV, I volunteered with abused animals and with the elderly in nursing homes. Through the JUF’s Write On for Israel program, I acquired an intimate awareness of the State of Israel and her inner workings. With 26 of my peers, I met with journalists, editors-in-chief, politicians and even Palestinian teenagers.

In middle school, I traveled with my class to Washington, D.C. and Israel. In high school, I’ve been blessed with the opportunities to play in the Yeshiva University basketball tournament, serve as the treasurer of the ICJA yearbook and as an editor for our literary magazine. My friends and I have been accepted to elite universities, and next year I plan to attend Yeshivat Orayta, an institution where I can wake up in the morning, peer out my window and salute the Western Wall.

These are opportunities that would not be offered to me in any other sphere of life.

These are opportunities that my parents never forget to remind me were unknown to them at my age.

These are opportunities, which I will not fail to afford to my own children, when their time comes.

And, believe me, the list of opportunities goes on.

I would like to spend my final moments with you focusing not on the multitude of opportunities made available to me by the Chicago Jewish day school system, but on what being a part of this community has done for me as a person.

The Jewish day schools have furnished me with the ability to know how to learn, with the ability to think independently and powerfully, and with the ability to create opportunities for myself, and for others, too.

Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

I proclaim that the Jewish day school system has acted in spite of those words, and I congratulate them for it. It has enabled Jewish children to act because we are powerful.

As for me: who could have ever guessed that a timid convert, amazed at a high concentration of Jewish children, would be standing before you now, representing them.