Editor’s note: The Jewish Light asked area high school students to submit an essay of 350 words or less explaining what it means to be Jewish to them. The essays were judged on creativity, originality, development of the essay’s theme, as well as basic writing skills. What follows are the essays of the first-and-second-place winners in the 11-12th grade and the 9-10th grade categories. The first- and second-place winners in each category received cash prizes thanks to the Shepard Endowment Fund, created by the late Irving and Sue Shepard. 

FIRST PLACE ESSAY: 11th-12th Grade

By Amarah Friedman

From the time I was little, I have loved to read. Unsurprisingly, my parents fed that passion, and I found myself digging into the deepest mysteries and most fantastical tales. Eventually, I began reading “The Little Midrash”with my mother. I don’t remember exactly how I received them. It seemed like they had materialized on my shelf-- and perhaps they had. To a little girl, the teachings of the Torah seemed whimsical and colorful and exciting. 

One of my favorite passages was that of creation: when God said, ‘Let there be light! And dark! And birds and trees!’ I’m paraphrasing here, but my point is that, put simply, God created the universe. As I’ve matured, I have revisited this idea and come to a deeper, more personal realization. God not only created the physical light that allows us to see, but another, intangible light: the light within ourselves. It can be starry and bold or timid and warm, but no matter its form, I understand this light in myself and others as inspiration. I believe that my light grows as I self-actualize, bringing me closer to who I know I am.

Judaism empowers me to amplify my light. Judaism guides me to inspire others. My life feels like a courageous journey of constant self-discovery: sometimes effortless, sometimes not. I endeavor to spread light and share beauty, and in those all-too-human moments that I can’t, I feel disconnected from the very nature that God gave me. To be a light in times of darkness: that is a true challenge.

When people share themselves, their knowledge, their enthusiasm, I see their light shining through, and everything getting just a little bit brighter. In the face of hardship, we support one another and share brightness. I have learned to love and respect who I am as a light-bringer, supporter and Jew. Through family and community, we come together to love and cherish who we are and who we can be.

Let there be light. Let us be light.

Amarah Friedman is a junior at MICDS and a member of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. She is the daughter of Julie Friedman and William Kafig. 

SECOND PLACE: 11th-12th Grade

By Allie Chervitz

For every significant event that has shaped me into the person I am today, I have Judaism to thank. My knowledge came from Sunday school. My character came from Camp Sabra. My values came from my family. My leadership skills came my youth group, BBYO. My sociability came from the St. Louis Jewish community. My confidence came from my confirmation class, which inspired me to volunteer to read Torah. My independence came from my journey to Israel last summer. My identity came from Judaism.

The opportunities this religion has provided for me are momentous. I have learned to give tzedakah, for the feeling you get from giving is better than anything you could imagine in return. Tikun Olam influences me to teach all of the life lessons I have learned.

Being a part of Student to Student allows me to demonstrate my passion and knowledge for this religion to teenagers who have never even seen someone Jewish. Every Sunday morning I am eager to to teach children at Sunday School. I’m looking forward to being a counselor at Camp Sabra this summer to spread my love for Judaism to all the campers. I hope my enthusiasm for Judaism will influence the next generation to be just as involved. I will continue to explore our faith, and with others, hopefully one day repair the world. 

Judaism teaches me to value my time, family and friendships. The connections I make through the Jewish community are so unique. From the children I work with after school at the J to the senior citizens I have met volunteering, Judaism helps us feel a sense of belonging, and unite as Jews.

I am so appreciative of what Judaism has done for my life, and how it has changed my perspective of the world. I take great pride in being Jewish, and think Judaism truly defines who I am. I am astonished I can feel this connected to something at age 17. I can’t even begin to fathom the wonderful ways it will impact my future.

Allie Chervitz is a junior at Parkway Central High School and a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth. She is the daughter of  Marianne and Steve Chervitz.

First place: 9th-10th grade

By Joey Sparks

For me, being Jewish is much more than solely a set of beliefs. In fact, I often feel the innate sensation of connection when in the presence of Jewish family anywhere in the world. In a land overseas, I once met some Jews at an airport and immediately our families started conversing as if we had already known each other. Because they are Jewish, they share similar beliefs, have a similar history and similar tradition to my own. Although I had never met them before, I felt they were trustworthy. What distinguishes being Jewish is that I can feel at home in any part of the world, granted I am with other Jews; in Israel, I felt a connection to random locals on the street.

 Even more than the religious aspect, it is the morality of being Jewish that is significant. I have avoided many wicked events because the discussions on lashon hara from my Hebrew school teacher have remained in my head. When people are bad-mouthing each other, it is tempting to join in. Regardless, I have been able to avoid these temptations and have even prevented lashon hara from occurring. Any time I’m going to make a comment about anyone, I ask myself: Is this lashon hara

The uniqueness of being Jewish is that Jews all have something in common. If two Jews share a cultural background, whether religious or not, they are connected. If Jews do not come from the same Jewish sect, it is belief from the Torah that unites us. 

I am glad to be part of such an interconnected community, which I can fall back on should I ever need assistance. At the same time, I contribute to the Jewish community. Since I was a child, I have volunteered at synagogues and elsewhere so that I can help to improve the world. After all, engaging in tikkun olam is another part of being Jewish. 

Shabbat unites us. I wrote this essay in the few hours between my last final exam and Shabbat; it would not be right to submit it any later.  

Joey Sparks is a sophomore at Clayton High School and a member of Kol Rinah. He is the son of Paula Rubin Sparks & Peter Sparks.

Second place: 9th-10th grade

By Noah Kleinlehrer 

Since I was 9 years old, I have attended a Jewish summer camp in Maine called Camp Micah. I went not knowing anyone. However, this camp was not just another Jewish summer camp. No, this is something special, even extraordinary. 

At Camp Micah, we are told to follow the Micah Philosophy. Told? Told to just follow something that no one ever really does? False, as a community, I feel as if we have taken those words of that, “It has been told to you O’ mortal what is good and what the Eternal requires of you, only this to Do Justly, Love Mercy, and to Walk humbly with your God.” 

Everyone at this camp, myself included, has embraced this philosophy not just into our bubble that is our camp, but in our communities back home. 

This camp now has not only foreign campers, but also others from all around the United States. However, what does this philosophy look like in those communities. 

“To Do Justly” is when I return to my community, and continue to do the right thing. Because it’s the right thing. Helping others, picking up litter, or even participating community service. 

“[To] Love Mercy,” is when I come home, and pray on Yom Kippur for forgiveness from God, or ask my friends at school for forgiveness. Or, even when I chant Torah at services. 

And finally, “[To] Walk Humbly with your God.” I feel that when I come home, I always carry these words in my soul. However, it can be difficult. To be modest with God, to understand the power of creation or destruction…This reminds me of the Jewish saying, that one should keep two pieces of paper in our pockets: One that says that you are just ashes and dust from the Earth, and the other that says that the world was created, for your presence. 

That is how I not only connect my life to Judaism, but live my life as a servant and a beautiful creation of God. 

Noah Kleinlehrer is a freshman at MICDS and a member of Temple Emanuel. He is the son of Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh and Robert Kleinlehrer.