For the sixth year running, a suburban Maryland teenager has earned a spot on the international board of United Synagogue Youth, the teen engagement arm of the Conservative movement.
Louis Popkin, 16, of Bethesda, successfully ran for communications vice president at USY’s 65th International Convention, held last month in Baltimore, while Micah Cowan, 18, of Rockville, completed his term as USY’s religion/education vice president. The two are members of the Seaboard region, which spans Maryland, Virginia, Washington and northeastern North Carolina.
Popkin is eager to work on his “overall goal to make USY feel like a closer community” despite the geographic distances.
The junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and a member of Congregation Har Shalom is now responsible for communicating the message of USY to its membership and potential members.
“As communications vice president, I believe strongly in ease of accessibility to information,” said Popkin. To that end, he would like to redesign the USY website and develop a mobile application.
Popkin is also in charge of working with his regional counterparts, which shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, given that he currently serves as the communications vice president for Seaboard.
The international board is focused on membership retention and growth.
“[We’re looking at] what can we do to bring people back, why are people coming back and what we can do to bridge the connection between Kadima and USY,” said Popkin.
It was a trip by Kadima, the Conservative middle school youth group, to King’s Dominion that initially spurred Popkin’s interest in USY. In addition to being involved in his home chapter and region, Popkin spent last summer on USY on Wheels — a program where Jewish teens spend part of the summer touring the United States by bus — and will travel abroad this summer with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar.
“I think it’s really cool to be working with a group of people just as passionate about USY as I am,” Popkin said of his fellow international board members. “These people want to work really intensively to make a difference. We’ve been talking, talking, talking — we have pages of ideas.”
Winning an election at a convention hosted an hour’s drive from home was icing on the cake for Popkin.
“I wasn’t completely confident that I was going to win, but I felt good doing it,” said Popkin. “It was wonderful. People were screaming my name.”
For Cowan, ending his time with USY in Baltimore was a bittersweet moment.
“Seaboard has not hosted a convention since 2008, so I was excited that we got to host as my last season as a USYer,” he said. “Every time I stood up and Seaboard cheered my name and roared I felt the passion and the ruach flow through me.”
Cowan just completed his first semester at List College, a joint program with Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His home chapter is Tikvat Israel in Rockville, which Hannah Smith, Seaboard’s regional president, also attends.
“International Convention was one big slide show moment in my head,” said Cowan. “I think back on all the things I’ve done in USY and what USY has done for me.”
Cowan’s passion for Judaism prompted him to seek the position that put him in charge of educational and religious programming for the youth movement. He started a number of projects, including Project #Heschtag, named for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The social media project encouraged USY members to post pictures or thoughts related to Jewish themes big and small like #FamilyFriday, in which members shared their Jewish family traditions on Twitter and Facebook.
Cowan takes pride in the fact that at this past International Convention, he signed up 110 new members to USY’s Abraham Joshua Heschel Honor Society. Members of the society study Torah weekly, attend congregational prayer at least four times a month — three of which should be on Shabbat — and engage in an act of kindness once a month.
Cowan represented USY, along with his fellow international board members, at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial and at a meeting of the Coalition for Jewish Teens, an event that brought together teen leadership from the five major Jewish youth movements across the United States: USY, Young Judea, BBYO, NFTY and NCSY.
“International board is truly different from any other position in USY,” said Cowan. “I encourage all USYers to really seek out higher leadership — leadership in general — and reach out to the international board.”
Rabbi David Levy, director of teen learning for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said, “Each of the newly elected leaders impressed us with their vision for the future of USY. We can’t wait to work with them as they empower new generations of teens and make their dreams a reality.”
Rounding out the rest of the newly elected board are: President, Ethan Feuer of New York; Israel affairs vice president, Daniela Rojzman of Florida; religion/education vice president, Cara Kupferman of New York; social action/tikkun olam vice president, Hannah Weiss of Florida; and membership/Kadima vice president Eric Wertheim of New York.
“I want to spend this year inspiring others,” Feuer said in a statement. “Starting right now, we need to redefine USY as being about relationships. If you can change one person’s understanding of what they’re capable of, how much people care about them, or how powerful a source for change they can be, you change everything.”