“Hey, you’re that guy from that restaurant! How’s it going?”
“Do you remember me? We met at CHUSY-fest in Chicago! You were amazing.”
“I loved your presentation in Portland. If you ever need a volunteer to do anything – spreadsheets, typing, you name it – I hope you’ll email me!”
I’ll never be famous, but for a precious few days, I knew what it’s like to be a celebrity, as teens flocked to me to talk, take selfies, and even get my autograph. From Dec. 27-31, at the United Synagogue Youth 65th International Convention in Baltimore, I was charged with inspiring more than 700 teens to take on social justice in a serious way. I walked into the convention nervous and daunted by the challenge – that is, until teens from all over the country saw me in the hallways and rushed to greet me. You see, as USY’s 2015 Danny Siegel Changemaker-in-Residence, I’ve spent the past eight months teaching USYers about social justice by joining their summer trips, leadership retreats, one-on-one discussions, and even leading online webinars. To my surprise and excitement, they have been incredibly receptive, engaged, and spurred my own growth as a Changemaker. And to think I almost turned down this transformative experience.
Flash back to early March 2015. When the call came offering me the position, it could not have come at a worse time. At work, I was preparing for a visit in which President Barack Obama toured my office during a one-day trip to Cleveland; at home, I was in the midst of moving my family to our new house in Beachwood; and in my volunteer life, I was focused on launching my second social enterprise, Cleveland Codes, a software coding academy that will offer careers in web development to inner-city youth. Suddenly presented with this amazing chance to inspire Conservative Jewish teens about tikkun olam (social justice), I was a little overwhelmed. I asked for an evening to think about it.
When I talked to my wife Alyson that night about whether I should accept the fellowship or turn it down, she had no such hesitation. “This opportunity has your name all over it. You were made to teach teens about tikkun olam,” she told me, citing my natural ability to connect with teens and my passion for social justice. “Just put Cleveland Codes on the back burner for a year, and you can work on it when the fellowship is over.” Realizing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encourage the next generation to become Changemakers, and thereby catalyze far more social justice than I could working independently, I understood that I had to say yes.
In accepting the fellowship, I knew I had a lot to teach the USYers; what I didn’t appreciate was how much I would grow personally as a result. First, I’ve always been an activist – a doer, more than a thinker. Taking a step back and turning my past experience – helping Brandon Chrostowski launch EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, working with Muslim social entrepreneurs through the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, spending a year in Israel working in underprivileged communities, volunteering for a year in St. Petersburg, Russia, helping rebuild Jewish life there, and more – into lessons that I can teach teenagers was insightful and meaningful work. Through this journey, I’ve learned so much about the passion of teens, and have been impressed by their focus and maturity in tackling the world’s most pressing issues. At every turn, a teenager looked to me for guidance, advice, or encouragement, and it was incredibly gratifying.
And what happened with Cleveland Codes, that software development academy I was supposed to put on the back burner? Well, true to my USY title, and much to my wife’s dismay, I kept working on it throughout my year as USY Changemaker-in-Residence. Classes start March 14.
Matthew Fieldman is a Beachwood resident.