By: Ashira Weiss
Shai Fichtelberg’s upbringing is very different from those of her parents. At Shai’s high school in Sonoma County, California, she is one of just six Jewish kids among a student body two thousand strong. Her parents both grew up on kibbutzim in Israel.
But Shai says it is precisely the scarcity of Jewish life in Sonoma that made her work harder to engage with Judaism. “My parents were surrounded by Jewish life and celebrations, but I had to go out and form my own connection and develop it in a tangible way,” she says.
The Senior, captain of her school’s debate team and treasurer of the math club, resonated so much with her Jewish identity that she decided to initiate one more club for her peers. The Jewish Heritage club meets in a classroom every second Wednesday during lunch hour. Shai and her cousin make presentations on a variety of topics and both Jewish and non-Jewish kids take part. After one club meeting where the group had discussed the atrocities of the Holocaust, a student came over and apologized to Shai. There had recently been a trend of students sharing Holocaust jokes on social media, in group chats and in person. The student apologized for participating. “He said he didn’t realize the Holocaust was so bad, and that’s the crux of the issue for many people. We learn our history and are painfully aware of what our ancestors went through. Other people are just uneducated or misinformed,” Shai says. This interaction spurred Shai to speak out more about antisemitism, educating her peers on recognizing it and stopping it.
This outreach and education is something she hopes to continue when she begins to attend college in Berkeley in the Fall, where she will be majoring in physics.
Shai’s outreach goes further too. She responds to emergencies by thinking of how she could help others. When California was hit by wildfires two years ago, she led her CTeen chapter in baking cookies for the firefighters and packing holiday kits for those who had lost their homes to the fires.
During pandemic shutdowns, she took to Zoom to keep her fellow teens in touch and engaged. The range of presentations she put together, on topics from mental health safety to an exploration of Judaism’s view on the soul, and her skilled and creative marketing on social media and other platforms, brought an international audience to attend her virtual programs.
Shai may be growing up in a different world than her parents, but with their support, she has forged a path of Jewish activity and education in the Jewish desert of Sonoma County. As she graduates and moves on, she hopes her fellow teens and her two younger brothers will continue deepening and broadening the Jewish presence which she worked to cultivate.