By Deb Silverthorn
Belong. Experience. Lead. Create. Impact. Together, these form the basis of United Synagogue Youth, under the umbrella of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, empowering Jewish youth to develop friendships, leadership skills, and a sense of belonging to the Jewish people for more than 70 years.
The joy that is USY, for generations of youth from Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, will be celebrated at the SWUSY Alumni Gala beginning at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 1, over Zoom.
The evening will honor USY devotees Maury Jacobs and the late Will Samuels with the event’s proceeds benefiting SWUSY’s Richie Herskowitz Scholarship Fund.
“The SWUSY gala is an opportunity for us to recognize and honor two outstanding alumni that dedicated years of service to SWUSY and USY as a whole while also reconnecting with old friends,” said Aaron Jacobs, past president of Congregation Beth Torah’s Rashi chapter and a former USY International president and volunteer USY staff member. He was asked by Joyce Juda, USY director of alumni to help plan the event with Dallas native Josh Nason. Together, with Dallas connections Robin Goodman Feldman, Faith Retsky, Byron Rubin and Daniel Wald, and others in the region, the event has become reality.
Jacobs, the son of Lyn and Ron and brother of Aaron, began his Kadima and then SWUSY experiences at Congregation Beth Torah where he served on the chapter board of Rashi USY then on the SWUSY Regional Executive Board as communications vice president and programming/Israel affairs vice president.
After graduating from J. J. Pearce High School and taking a gap year on USY’s NATIV College Leadership program, Maury served as USY chapter advisor of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, a position he held on to while he commuted from San Antonio once he graduated college. He later served in that role at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, then as regional director from 2011 to 2017 and for two years as a continental engagement supervisor of USY national.
“My Mom was a USY’er in St. Petersburg, Florida and that set us up. I absolutely loved everything about USY as a participant and then, while I thought my professional career would only be a year or two – it turned into a decade,” said Maury, now married to Sara and the father of Daniel and Hannah and a principal of Beta Academy charter school in Houston. The family belongs to Congregation Brith Shalom. “USY gave me a sense of self-worth and self-confidence that I wanted to pass on to other youth. Rashi, in high school, was ‘my place’ and ‘my people,’ and working for USY was all about my being able to give that to others.
Samuels, who passed away in September, was the son of Alvin and Madilyn Samuels, brother of Greg and Mark, the husband of Jennifer and father of Livia. A native of New Orleans, an alumnus of Benjamin Franklin High School and the University of Texas, he was an avid member of USY at the Conservative Congregation of New Orleans (now Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation) and then regional director from 1996 to 2002.
“I started Kadima online through the pandemic and my dad would come in and listen in. He talked about how important USY was to him and how much he learned about leadership from being involved,” said Livia Samuels, 13, who this year is excited to bring Kadima and USY back to Shir Chadash, the first time a chapter will be present since Hurricane Katrina. “He saw on my ‘calls’ kids who had been in his groups that were now leaders, and he loved seeing them now doing the same thing. I can’t wait to be in person.”
“Will put his whole self into USY and it’s incredible how his former USYers remembered him after he passed,” said Jennifer Samuels. “Robin (Goodman) Feldman and Dr. Lauren (Bleich) Feldman created a donation page as a bat mitzvah gift for Livia, to cover the costs for this summer at Camp Ramah Darom. We are overwhelmed by the kindness and know this honor would mean so much to him.”
Mark Samuels, six years his brother’s senior, didn’t share time in the chapter together but set the bar as he was president of both the local USY and BBYO chapters, with Will Samuels following suit. Later, the two worked together in business for years.
“Will served as the synagogue’s executive director, USY’s regional director and we were working together — all at the same time — and somehow he did it all, and he did it all well,” he said. “He was so loved by the USYers and fellow professionals and, as we look through tributes since he’s passed, all you see is love and his impact. All of his life, Will stepped up and this is a most deserving honor.”
Joining the family on the May 1 Zoom gala, will be Will Samuels’s parents; his mother said, “Will started working for the synagogue right after his bar mitzvah teaching junior congregation — his Jewish identity always such a big part of who he was. For so many years, in so many ways, he touched so many lives and we are so grateful to be part of this honor and to connect with those who loved him.”
The beneficiary of the event is the SWUSY’s Richie Herskowitz Scholarship Fund. The fund supports participants with dues, convention fees and other USY-related costs and is named in memory of Richie Herskowitz who was a member of Congregation Shearith Israel’s Zohar chapter. Herskowitz, the son of Barbie and Mark, and brother of Bryna, Jordan and Neil, passed away of Cystic Fibrosis-related issues in 2007, during his senior year at Plano Senior High School.
“Richie had such a strong sense of his Jewish identity, and he was so social – USY brought that all together for him. He absolutely loved his Jewish teen life,” said Jordan Herksowitz, who was Zohar president when Richie was a freshman representative of the chapter.
“The SWUSY scholarship fund is a way to honor and support his passion for USY and also an opportunity for us to educate USYers about registering to become organ donors and other programs of the Richie’s Spirit Foundation,” said Jordan Herskowitz who leads the organization in memory of his brother and on behalf of the family.
The Herskowitzes and Jacobs are family; the Jacobs brothers created the regional scholarship in their cousin’s memory. “We wanted to keep Richie’s spirit alive, help others in need, and inspire USYers to live their lives to the fullest,” said Aaron Jacobs, now married to Mazelle, the father of Harper. The family lives in Los Angeles, where he’s the international network and special projects manager with Diller Teen Fellows, a Jewish leadership program.
“No matter what decade someone shared in SWUSY, our experiences are similar in providing us each with opportunities to explore leadership, Jewish identity, and an understanding of Tikkun Olam that has lasted well beyond our direct SWUSY involvement,” Aaron Jacobs said.
For more information, or to register for the SWUSY Alumni Gala, visit usy.org/swusyalumni. For additional details, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org