Jessica Snouwaert, on left, with friends from the American Hebrew Academy.
As I rush around packing up my room for the summer, and squeeze in some last minute studying for finals, I realize two things: that I’ve had one of the best school years ever, and that the American Hebrew Academy (AHA) in Greensboro, N.C., has become a second home for me. Because I am surrounded by Jewish peers, it’s a place where I have never felt so comfortable.
When I entered the academy in the fall, I was afraid of how I would get along with my classmates and feared being away from my family. I knew that leaving home at 14 would be extremely challenging; however I was reassured by the support system around me and the knowledge that my family was just a Skype call away.
I live in the small town of Monument, Colo., which has a very small Jewish community. As a result, I did not have much opportunity to expand my Jewish identity and become as connected to my culture as I would have liked. The Academy was the perfect solution for me — a balance between secular and Jewish studies. The American Hebrew Academy offers a rigorous college-preparatory, dual curriculum. This ability to take Jewish studies courses was one of the major reasons I was drawn to the Academy.
Before I came to AHA, I had been fairly secluded. The Academy has really given me the opportunity to meet students and families from around the world. I find it special when I hear one student speaking in Russian while the other replies in Hebrew. It’s incredible to have a school where trilingual students are not uncommon.
Though I have only been at the school a short time, I can already see that my Jewish roots are growing and will continue to grow deeper the longer that I’m here. It’s amazing to be able to leave my dorm and choose from a wide array of Shabbat services including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and alternative options, such as bibliodrama. In bibliodrama we use acting, improvisational games and other theater-related activities to understand the week’s Torah portion. Diversity is the beauty of attending a pluralistic school. During the Jewish holidays some students travel home, but many stay on campus and enjoy the student celebrations.
The extra-curricular activities are my favorite aspects of the Academy. I participate in the school’s newspaper, The AHA Standard, and the literary magazine, Unbound. I am also a member of the girls’ softball club, honor society and the golf team. Next year I’ll be secretary of student government.
After school and on weekends the school provides shuttle buses to the movie theater and local shopping centers. My favorite thing to do on the weekends is walk down to the school’s boat house and kayak on the lake. Sometimes I’ll grab a book and soak up the sun by a table at the dock. I also enjoy working out in the weight room, playing basketball, swimming and rock climbing.
Although AHA shares some similarities with summer camp, such as the camaraderie and student’s independence, I find it very different because of the housing. I live in the freshman girl’s home; each grade’s gender has its own house. The house contains shared dorm rooms, a small kitchen (although we eat our meals in the communal dining hall), a lounge, and study and laundry rooms. The house also has an apartment for the family who supervises the home.
As everyone knows high school can be difficult because students struggle to fit in with their peers. The amazing thing about the Academy is that the stress of a high school social hierarchy is eliminated. This has to do with our sense of community and the small size of the school, only 150 students.
The Academy is a home away from home, like having a second family. No place is perfect, but the Academy is a place where everyone can find a friend and the students don’t judge each other or separate by grade. It’s common for a senior, junior and a freshman to all be friends and hang out on a daily basis.
You can walk into the dining hall and see students and faculty sitting, talking and eating together, not because the students are in trouble, but because they want to spend time together. The support system is incredibly strong; there is always someone to lean on when you need them the most.
Of course not everything at AHA is a fairytale; I struggled here just like anyone else. I battled homesickness for the first month. I went home fewer times than other students; I spent fall, winter and spring breaks in Colorado. I was far more homesick than most, however, with perseverance and support I managed to get through it with encouragement from my family and my community at AHA.
I am very glad I persevered because now I can’t imagine leaving. Being away from the Academy during the summer is going to be hard. I’ll miss all of the faces I’m used to seeing daily and the kavanah (spiritual passion) I feel at the services here, but I can bring that to my congregation at home.
During my freshman year I developed independence, problem-solving skills and a positive outlook. I don’t know what the rigors of sophomore year will hold, but I can only hope that the rest of my high school days will be spent at the place that I have come to call my second home, the American Hebrew Academy.