It's Christmastime; that means there are Christmas trees in windows, Christmas lights on houses and Christmas carols on the radio. Everywhere you look, Buffalo has been 'Christmasified.' What are you going to do, though, if Rudolph and his red nose don't mean anything to you besides crazy shoppers and a break from school? What if you're Jewish?
Jewish teens in Western New York are definitely a minority. While everyone else is waiting for Santa to come, Jewish teenagers are lighting menorahs and spinning dreidels. Jews have different customs and practices, and many of their high school peers can't relate to them.
The National Conference of Synagogue Youth is an Orthodox youth group for Jewish teens.
As Molly Sonenberg, a sophomore from Guilderland High School near Albany, said: "NCSY is the coolest organization for Jewish teens out there, inspiring secular Jewish students to grow by learning, friends, food, education on Israel and Jewish pride." In the Buffalo Chapter of NCSY, there are about 20 teens from eighth to 12th grade plus about six junior members from fifth to seventh grade. The group meets two to three times a month to celebrate Jewish holidays, learn about Judaism or just hang out.
Some past events include: apple picking to get ready for Rosh Hashana; cookie sukkah building and a sukkah hop to prepare for Sukkot; Pizza and Parsha (Torah/Bible study); movie nights; and going to the Corn Maize.
Elana Chazen, a sophomore at Williamsville North High School, said, "[The NCSY meetings] are a lot of fun, and I love the feeling when we're all together that we're really like a family. It is cool meeting other people. I love the atmosphere that even though we're so different, we still have things in common."
Buffalo isn't the only chapter in upstate New York. Other chapters include Rochester, Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse, the Catskills and Mount Kisco. Regional Shabbatons are a way to bring all the chapters together for a weekend.
"They are fun, and I can be around friends that are Jewish like me," says Elianna Mikulik, a freshman at Williamsville North High School.
Over a weekend last month, Buffalo joined the rest of the upstate New York chapters in a Fall Shabbaton held in Rochester. The theme of the convention was "Diversity -- How is everyone different and how should one cope with that?"
On Friday night, advisers shared their stories about how they grew up and faced diversity. One adviser spoke about growing up as the only Jew in her school and deciding to spend a gap year in Israel. Another adviser spoke about growing up unobservant and finding his love of Judaism. Still another adviser told the story of how she grew up Catholic in Puerto Rico and decided to convert to Judaism.
Since most NCSY members attend public schools, they face diversity every day.
"I learned that being yourself is the best way to fit in and it's OK to be different. As long as you're being you, it's OK," Elana said.
On Sunday morning of the Shabbaton weekend, the NCSY members had a chance to share their own stories. About 10 students shared how they face diversity in their lives. Students discussed anti-Semitism they face in school; the journey they took to become more religious; and the struggle they went through to wear a kippah in school, keep kosher or keep Shabbat at home. The support from advisers and peers inspires NCSY members to keep up their hard work and pride.
"NCSY lets me be me," says Jordyn Kaufman, a junior at Horace Greeley High School in Mount Kisco.
Back in Buffalo, NCSY members who celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas are putting that spirit into action. On Sunday, the Buffalo NCSY chapter board will be volunteering at the Hanukkah Party at Weinberg Campus in Getzville.
So, as the rest of America is hanging up Christmas lights and humming along with "Jingle Bell Rock," NCSY members know that diversity is a part of life. They don't have to feel strange because they're different; they can feel proud.
Naomi Soman is a senior at Williamsville North High School.